... life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That's the two categories. The horrible are like, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life. It's amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable, because that's very lucky, to be miserable.
— Woody Allen, from Annie Hall
I was watching a Daily Ticker video called Hollywood's Summer of Remakes, Reboots and Sequels. The story is about the fact that Hollywood seems to make the same movies over and over again in recent years. That trend isn't surprising in a declining Empire. In fact, that's just what we would expect, and it's been going on for some time now.
But what movies is Hollywood remaking? What "franchises" are they sticking with? That's far more interesting to me.
What do The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spiderman, Total Recall and The Bourne Legacy have in common?
They're all based on widely successful movie franchises that Hollywood studios hope will draw Americans back to movie theaters this summer. Comic book heroes again reign supreme at the box office but the bigger trend at the movies has been a push to reboot or remake classic films. According to RottenTomatoes.com, less than half of the movies released this summer have been original story ideas.
More often than not, we get hero (or superhero) Good versus Evil movies with extraordinary special effects (FX). People are flying around, not walking or running. Material forms morph into different, extraordinary (and threatening) material forms. All sorts of stuff. The key word is fantasy. Hollywood has created an artificial world in which it seems that any fantasy can be enacted on the big screen What's going on?
As regular readers know, I spend a lot of time talking about (and ridiculing) the human fascination with technology, which I believe is built right into Human Nature. See my post The Assumption Of Technological Progress.
It is natural ask what about technological progress in the movies? What is it telling us?
If you watch a documentary called The Sci-Fi Boys, you will see that fantasy-enabling technology in the movies goes back to the stop-motion animation of movies like King Kong (1933), and continued in the UFO/atomic monster/outer space movies of the 1950s.
Peter Jackson, the host of this feature, says: "The real reason The Sci-Fi Boys is so important is that it charts the evolution of fantastic cinema, to put on record, for all time, the influence that the pioneers of special effects had on my generation of filmmakers"
To make a long story short, the evolution of computer graphics over the last 40 years has changed everything in fantastic cinema. Companies like George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic can now create, easily and relatively cheaply, any effect the filmmaker wants. More and more, the movies that get made are little more than one long FX-laden fantasy loosely hung on a standard hero story. The real star of these of these movies are the effects. And make no mistake about it, these movies are very popular, not only in the United States, but all over the world.
Humans everywhere eat this stuff up; they love this stuff.
Now I will ask you to carry out a small thought experiment. Pretend you have a time machine. (If you don't have one, Hollywood will be only too happy to create one for you.) Go back to 1850, or 1500, or 11,000 B.C.E for that a matter, a time when all humans were still hunting and gathering. After dialing back to whatever time in the past you like, ask yourself this—
Looking around at these humans, is it possible to see that what they really crave, if only they could have it, is The Amazing Spider-Man?
Of course the answer is a resounding No! But looking around now in 2012, it is easy to see that humans really do crave endless fantasy served up on the big screen by Hollywood magicians.
How is Human Nature revealed to us? Perhaps it is better to ask a more fundamental question: is there such a thing as Human Nature? Or are we humans just a blank slate on which culture writes?
I can not discuss a book-length subject in a blog post, but regular readers know which side of this question I come down on. There are behaviors (wants, needs) which are latent in the human animal, and there are those which have been revealed to us. As technological progress marches on, which itself is a fundamental component of who we are, other, hidden aspects of our natures are brought to light.
When farming, food surpluses and social complexity arose in human cultures, hierarchy and inequality were born. (Hunter-gatherers didn't have those.) There have been no significant exceptions to this formerly latent tendency in complex human societies since the Neolithic Revolution. To take another example, when technology enabled humans to "master" their physical environment, and societies were no longer resource-constrained, the innate urge to grow and consume was revealed in its full glory.
Would anyone seriously argue that making babies and increasing the material comfort of those offspring—to enhance their evolutionary fitness, their ability to survive and reproduce—is not typical animal behavior? In fact, strangely, many people do make this argument, and do not acknowledge the existence of something called "Human Nature." They seem to think anything is possible. There's that blank slate again. I think we need to take what we see in the world around us seriously, and try to explain it, not just complain about it. The set of "possible worlds" appears rather limited to me.
And what about our Hollywood movies case? What is that telling us?
Straightforwardly, it tells us two complimentary things about the human animal—
Humans love Fantasy, the bigger the better. They don't merely prefer fantasy—they demand it. They abhor Reality. The worse the Reality is, the more they seek to escape it.
This is not terribly surprising when we think about it, that humans would wholeheartedly embrace fantasy worlds which don't resemble this one. For the vast majority of the 7 billion people on this planet, the world (both natural and human-created) is a miserable place, and always has been, whether you go back to 1850, 1500 or 13 thousand years ago. It makes sense that humans would have developed some elaborate-looking but fundamentally simple ways to defend themselves against Reality.
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, if they could afford it, people retreated from everyday horribleness by watching Fred & Ginger dance in the movies. The settings were always exotic, the appointments rich, the people fabulous. They were larger than life. Now, in 2012, Fred & Ginger would be flying around the room (or city) fighting each other with light sabers or whatever's handy.
Our seemingly endless need to escape Reality—that, I believe, is what technological progress in the movies has revealed about who we humans really are. Hollywood is only too happy to oblige, especially because there's a lot of money in it.
Bonus Video — Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Cole Porter's Night And Day from the The Gay Divorcee (1934)