Star Trek always felt like a silly, campy thing. I remember appreciating it, but feeling like I didn't get it. I felt it didn't give me a way in. There was a captain, there was this first officer, they were talking a lot about adventures and not having them as much as I would've liked.
- JJ Abrams

Hollywood Into Darkness

21 March 2015

I rewatched Star Trek Into Darkness this afternoon, and mentioned on Twitter that it "has many flaws, but not the one that most of my friends claim it does."

My friend Iain, of course, immediately asked me to elaborate on that statement.

Here are some givens: STID is retrogressive (in terms of the Trek universe) in its handling of women; it is borderline racist (or at the very least, ill-advised) in casting Cumberbatch as Khan; and it pulls the "main character dies, but doesn't really" long bow far too soon (that trick should have been pulled in, say, film #3 or #4, or better yet, not at all). These are faults where I agree with everyone else.

(Some people claim the film is actively stupid, but I think they must still be sore from the "red matter" in the first one. The plot of STID is neither especially stupid nor even particularly ridiculous in Trek terms. Trek has never been the most plausible of SF universes anyway.)

A lot of Trek fans, though, seem to hate these two films specifically because they are so very much not old-school Trek - they accuse JJ Abrams of being a Trek-hater who is deliberately making these movies in such a way as to walk over their childhoods, basically - deliberately dismantling or perverting all they hold dear.

I don't disagree with them. I just don't consider it a flaw.

Last time I discussed this with anyone (which was right after STID came out), it turned out that while I am definitely a fan of old Trek, I don't hold the universe in particular reverence. In fact, quite a lot of it annoys me. I find the pacing of large parts of all the TV series very slow and talky - and I've seen enough of all of them to be able to call that an informed judgement. Even fans admit that half the old movies stank on ice (and I don't like at least one of the ones everyone else does - I find the one with the whales goes into feel-good-treacle territory too often for my stomach, which leaves Wrath of Khan as the only really good first-generation Trek film, and I rule myself unable to properly judge the second-generation ones because I never personally warmed to any of the second-generation cast except Picard).

In being talky and preachy (and sometimes sappy), the Trek universe is only following the dictates of its god - that was Roddenberry's primary fault as a writer/architect, same as it was Rod Serling's, this tendency to go into Movie of the Week territory at the drop of a hat. (Roddenberry didn't write anything quite as bad as "I Am the Night - Color Me Black," but that's because he let others write his ideas. "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," for example, handles race issues almost as clumsily and has Roddenberry's fingerprints all over it.) The original Trek universe is naively utopian because Roddenberry wanted it to be naively utopian, and dull in the parts where his influence dictated it be dull.

But that god is dead, and that universe was never going to cut it for a new generation. So Abrams upended the clichés (admittedly, sometimes not to good effect) and turned the movies into reasonably high-grade action films. (Relative to the rest of the genre, of course.) So what? Maybe that's exactly what the franchise needed to keep it lively a while longer.

Basically, while I understand people's reluctance to have anyone mess with their sacred cows, Trek is not and never was one of my sacred cows, so I don't have an issue with what Abrams hath wrought.

But - and here begins the part I didn't bother to say to Iain - this does give rise to a Big Question. To what degree does a film have a responsibility to please the past, and to what degree does a film have a responsibility to please the market?

Before I go there, consider the state of the industry.

My friend L- and I have danced around this topic several times even within the brief timespan of our acquaintance to date, and she is not the first person I have spun these particular coins with by any means. The loop goes like this:

- Hollywood makes crap. They've become more risk-averse than ever before (which is saying something) and now only want to make tired action films, tired romances, tired comedies of the type which substitute bad or shocking behavior for wit, and sequels or rehashes of existing IP.

- Hollywood makes crap because crap sells and film budgets have passed well beyond sanity. The crap is safer because they know people will go see it, whereas if they shoot a budget on something that's actually daring, they will lose their investment.

- Counterargument: If Hollywood actually bothered to give a more daring film the sort of publicity budget they give the risk-free stuff, people might very well go see the more daring stuff. Instead, they trot it out as quietly as they can for Oscar eligibility and then bury it, hoping to recoup in the video/demand market.

- Counter-counterargument: That's really the only tactic they can use, since people have largely stopped going to films in theatres; even the blockbusters have stopped being as much of a sure bet as they were.

- Well, people would go to films more often if filmgoing hadn't been turned into such an actively unpleasant and costly experience.

- No, they wouldn't, because we've become timeshifters who habitually overbook ourselves and who have the attention span of gnats.

- So the whole thing is hopeless and doomed?

- No, but Hollywood may be. The future lies with the fast-and-cheap people, working on small distributions and small budgets and not trying to get beyond their niche audience.

- I don't think so, because frankly, the "daring" films are the ones people like to say they see, like to think of themselves as watching and appreciating, but they actually don't. We like junk food and I don't know why we're so hypocritical about it. I don't want to go see a film that's tedious or depressing. I want to see a film with joy and excitement and forward plot motion, but I also want to see it have wit and charm and grace and a good script. I don't see why it's so hard to have it all. The question isn't why more people aren't seeing the tale of some egotist actor's midlife crisis or the film about the woman who's losing her mind and knows it, because how about if we just jump off a bridge instead? The question is, why aren't the fun films better?

- Because Hollywood is incapable of making them better. Hollywood has forgotten how to make anything but crap.

(Lather, rinse, repeat)

So, here we are, with the Hollywood we have (which, as the general didn't quite say, may not be the Hollywood we want). Back to the question above.

JJ Abrams could have made two Star Trek films that didn't piss off the established Trek audience. He could have done, but he knew better. He knew that's not what he was hired to do.

Abrams was hired specifically not to do that. Oh, certainly, he had to throw in some service for the old fans (Nimoy, rest his soul, bought him a lot of mileage in that direction) but mostly he seemed to regard that as a burden, and I can't say I blame him.

One of the main reasons I stopped reading comics a long while back was the endless reboots and reinvisionings and alternate universes were too hard to follow, but I also can't say I blame the comics writers for wanting them. I can't imagine having to try to make a script under the weight of all that fucking continuity. I can't imagine trying to do something new with a character who's been around for over fifty years and knowing that any time I tinker in the slightest with anything, some fanboy is going to holler, "No, you can't do that, it directly contradicts a point which was established back in issue #212 in 1972." Fuck you, fanboy. Let's just clean house and start over and maybe we can all have some fun again, eh?

So now imagine you're Abrams and you've been handed the reins to one of the most recognizable IP franchises of the twentieth century (and maybe the 21st if we're lucky). Time to really do some interesting stuff with it - oh, no, wait, we have all this goddamned lore we have to get past. OK, let's make a checklist. Redshirt joke? Check. Sulu fencing? Check. Vulcan crap? Check. And so on and so on and so on.

People, it's taken Abrams two whole films just to get past the weight of all that bullshit, and in doing so, it's pissed off the old line trufans so badly that it could have endangered his chance to show what he can do once all that debt burden is relieved. Fortunately, his corporate masters didn't care if he pissed off the old line trufans. (Unfortunately, he got sucked into that other weighed-down-by-lore-and-its-first-god franchise, where his reception will be more positive because Star Wars fans, as a rule, admit that George Lucas sucks as both a visionary and a filmmaker and welcome the change. Star Wars' gain is Star Trek's loss.)

The sad thing is, many of the fans who are the most pissed off about Abrams' Trek are the same ones who are often annoyed at how seldom Hollywood will take risks or go out on a limb. Do they not see the connection between the two problems? Do they not see that there is an internal contradiction in being mad at Abrams for cavalierly tossing out all the old lore and at the same time being mad at Hollywood for clinging so hard to the tried and true?

Now, of course, you can say, "I see that he's trying to do new things, I just don't happen to like those new things." That's an indisputable statement and you're totally entitled to it. In which case I send my condolences: Sorry that his version doesn't work for you, but don't spoil it for everybody else, please?

And we're still no closer to an answer to the Big Question: To what extent does a filmmaker have an obligation to service the Body of Existing Lore/Tradition/Habit, and to what extent does she have an obligation to try to do something New and Different? And (unrelated but parallel), to what extent does the filmmaker have an obligation to make Art, and to what extent does she have an obligation to make a film that will actually sell (so she can get the money to make more films)?

Hollywood doesn't give a shit about Art and never has. Frankly, though I often despise their product, I don't always disagree with their stance. Art is nice. We need to keep having Art. But Art, in film, often takes unpalatable forms to me (why are the people making Art in films so often making joyless films about the horrific, depressing, and nasty parts of the human condition? Where is the filmmaker making joyous Art despite sometimes going into dark places? Have we had one since Chaplin? Essay question; please submit your homework after the seminar).

Possibly if there were more filmmakers making Art that was actually, on balance, pleasant to watch, there would be no need for this discussion. But as it is, Hollywood very clearly feels that Art does not sell, and I believe Hollywood's instincts, in this particular case, are correct.

Of course, this leads us into the much deeper waters of how artists make a living and whether sticking to art the public will buy is a recipe for the slow death of art.

I go back and forth on this. On the one hand, I believe that art at its best is a commentary on the human condition and the human condition is mighty grim. I understand why someone might not want to pay for an artist's depiction of the grim. I also understand that if all artists just make happy flowers because happy flowers are what sells, something important is lost and we're eventually left with nothing but Thomas Kinkade and Mary Engelbreit. I am certainly not going to be as severe on this as Heinlein, who once had one of his characters say that "a government-sponsored artist is an incompetent whore." (I think Heinlein enjoyed pissing people off just to see who was paying attention.)

On the other hand, it strikes me that even unpalatable topics can be presented in ways which have something so compelling to say that people are willing to buy in. (Picasso's "Guernica" is a painting about a horrific firebombing, and it's an ugly-ass painting to boot, but its value ranges from "millions" to "incalculable.") In other words, I can't shake the idea that failure to sell one's art always contains a component of personal failure on the part of the artist. Not trying hard enough, not doing it right, not marketing it to the right people, etc.

(Granted this may contain a component of self-flagellation, one of my favorite sports, since I love writing books and do it pretty well but hate the process of trying to sell any of them.)

In short, I think it may be possible to satisfy both masters: to make Art and yet still get people running to the theatre to have a good time. I say "may" because I'm not sure everything can be saved. If Julianne Moore, whom I adore, couldn't get me to see Still Alice, I'm not sure anything could. (I just don't need anything else in my life that depresses me. I'm full up.) But, on the other hand, I saw and loved two films last year which were definitely Art and both definitely were things which I normally wouldn't touch with an eleven-foot pole - Inherent Vice, because I think Pynchon is a pretentious fart who substitutes vocabulary for coherence and also I loathe Joaquin Phoenix, and Grand Budapest Hotel, because I think Wes Anderson is a pretentious fart who substitutes design for enjoyability, and also I loathe Ralph Fiennes. And yet those two films were two of the high points of my film-going year.

But I've gone far afield, as usual. Back to Abrams, and we're wrapping up now, I promise. Abrams was hired to make a commercial film. He was hired to make something a lot of people would be willing to pay money to see. He succeeded. His primary obligation was not to the old school fans, and he knew it. On the other hand, it might very well have been possible to make those films without pissing them off. But, on the third hand, if he had, would they have been as viable to the younger audience whom he was primarily hired to attract?

I submit to you: the old Trek won't sell any more, not to anyone under a certain age, and the course Abrams took was the only course he could possibly take (minus his blatant missteps in other directions, of course).

You may, of course, disagree strongly. I imagine some of you do.

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