Seventeen minutes into Guardians, we see our very first ray of sunshine. It’s hard to believe that a summer blockbuster, and a movie held in people’s minds as a comedy, could be so dark for so much of its runtime. The sun in question shines on Xandar, a planet where it’s always daytime and blue-skies. Xandar is like the Washington DC of the Guardians universe, if Washington DC wasn’t a corruption-riddled sinkhole. It’s a cultural center, a government capital, a monument to liberty. Xandar’s streets are wide, its buildings low-rise and humane, its populace diverse (well, white folks and aliens) and affluent. There don’t seem to be any slums on Xandar, and a wisenheimer raccoon with a sidekick talking tree don’t merit even a raised eyebrow. In this cold, wet, stormy galaxy, Xandar is a paradise, a beacon of hope. It’s the flip side of Mos Eisley Spaceport, it’s a wretched hive of niceness and class.
The raccoon, Rocket, looks down on the Xandarians as “losers.” Happy people with money and leisure disgust him. Given the “I’m Not in Love” theme of Guardians, one is tempted to posit, right off the bat, that Rocket secretly longs to settle down and have a family, a “normal life.” His George-and-Lenny act with Groot (the tree) suggests that Rocket keeps Groot going by “telling him about the rabbits,” the life of ease they’re going to have once they get one last big score. Groot may be slow, or even stupid, but he’s all the family a genetically-modified raccoon can find in this cockeyed caravan.
What do Rocket and Groot want? To catch Peter for Yondu’s 40,000-credit bounty. That’s the end of the movie for them. What they don’t know is that their plot-lines are about to collide with at least two others. If Ronan’s want is planetary-sized, and Peter’s want is orb-sized, Rocket’s and Groot’s want is as flat as the bounty-wanted screen he looks at Xandar through.
Thirteen minutes into the narrative, the chief antagonist is introduced, Ronan the Accuser. He lives in a tank of goo on a Kree spaceship called the Dark Aster (possibly a reference to the classic early John Carpenter movie Dark Star?)
What does Ronan want? His actable goal, his cinematic goal, is “to get the whatsit that Peter stole.” It was his goons who tried to get it from Peter already. But what will that get him? What does the antagonist want?
After its heart-rending “cold open” in the hospital, the narrative of Guardians leaps ahead a few decades. Peter is now in his 30s, and is engaged in some high-tech sci-fi shenanigans. As the titles roll, a one-man heist sequence plays out, an affectionate parody of the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Peter is no longer a sobbing boy or a helpless victim, he’s now a swaggering space-pirate looting ancient cities for lost treasure. His Walkman is no longer his shield, exactly; it’s now more like the vessel of his mojo. Instead of Indiana Jones carefully reading clues, dodging traps and insisting “That belongs in a museum!” we have Peter casually jiving his way through a ruined planet’s rainy landscape, kicking deadly lizards out of his way and even using one as a pretend microphone.
For a big-budget, gee-whiz, goofy-space-opera summer blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy begins surprisingly quietly.
A boy sits in a hospital corridor in 1988 cradling his Walkman. “Awesome Mix Vol 1″ reads the label. He’s listening to “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc. “I’m Not in Love,” from the summer of 1975, was instrumental in launching the career of 10cc. Originally written to a bossanova beat, it was reworked to feature an all-choral backing, made up of hundreds of overdubbed voices. Whether this was on the minds of the makers of Guardians or not, but the strength-in-numbers / linking together vast chains of individuals theme resonates throughout the movie. The subject matter, oddly, is a young man refusing to say he’s in love, until finally he’s deluding himself.
What does that have to do with the boy in the corridor? Well, his mother in dying in the next room, and he’s intent on holding in his feelings. His Walkman here is his shield, his way of holding the world and its horrors at arm’s length. And we will find that, in a way, the whole narrative of Guardians, with its reluctant hero who eventually joins society and does so, successfully, on his own terms, is about a boy who insists that he’s not in love until he finally admits that he is.
(“I’m Not in Love” is also a song from an album titled Original Soundtrack, which is a fine enough joke in its own right.)
On top of all that, “I’m Not in Love” sets the tone for Guardians‘s meta-narrative of “modern” humanity and its relationship with culture, especially culture of the past. A pop song from 1975 is an odd thing, I think, to find on the Walkman of a boy in 1988, until you realize, much later, that the “Awesome Mix Vol 1″ was a gift from his mother, the same mother who’s dying in the next room. It’s not “his” music the boy is listening to, it’s his mother’s. The “Awesome Mix” is a kind of parting gift from mother to child, an invitation to popular culture and a sweet sampling of “adult” emotions, to guide a son through the rockier moments of life. The culture the boy’s mother has chosen to share is unabashedly popular, populist, “fun” (as opposed to “serious”) and life-affirming, all of which adjectives describe Guardians as well. Just as the boy’s mother’s mix-tape is designed to guide and celebrate, so is the movie.
For those who enjoy cats, and silliness, I’d like to direct you to my tumblr page, Didi & Gogo, where I chronicle the recording career of my cats.
If you have access to the internet, and I think it’s safe to assume you do, chances are you’re already familiar with “Too Many Cooks,” Caspar Kelly’s surreal, head-spinning take on the tropes of television. This 11-minute short, produced for Adult Swim, goes so far beyond simple labels like “parody” and “satire” that it warrants some special consideration. Once you’ve seen a form-shattering piece like this, you start to ask “Why aren’t more things like this?” All the year’s best movies — The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy and Birdman, for starters — bend the shapes of their forms, but “Too Many Cooks” rips its form to shreds, then crams it into a Cuisinart. Hit the jump to begin your journey into madness.
It’s a fairly common occurrence for me that a young talent will come to me and ask me how to break into the biz. Since I’ve made several movies, make my living as a full-time writer and still don’t know “how to break into the biz,” I’m never sure what to say.
I do know this: it’s hard to get a movie made. The maze an idea has to go through from idea to multiplex is so long, so convoluted and so fraught with peril, that almost no ideas whatsoever make it all the way. The multiplex hit is a property designed from the top down, the corporation that owns the studio says “We need to see X amount of profit, or you’re out of business.” The studio then says “We need to take zero risks in our release schedule, we can only make huge movies that will play well internationally and will bring in lots of money through ancillaries for a long long time.”
So, if you’re a young talent and you’re expecting to “break into the biz,” the odds are stacked hugely against you. The studio is giving the jobs that matter to people who have already proven themselves to be talented filmmakers.
And so, the thing I say to the young talent who wants to break into the biz is: “Make your own work.” No one is going to give you a job writing or directing a movie; write and direct the movie yourself.
It’s never been easier. Cameras are dirt cheap, computer memory even cheaper, and your phone probably has an editing program more sophisticated than AVID. And the internet is right there, demanding to be fed content every day, 24 hours a day.
If you’d like an example of the perfect movie to make, go see The One I Love. It has one location, two actors, and a lovely corkscrew of an idea that means that the one-location, two-actor movie doesn’t feel like a play. It’s a movie, and it could only be a movie.
I’m glad that The One I Love has the production values it does, but whatever its budget was, it could have been lower. It could have been nothing. The script could have been shot with a consumer-level camera in a single apartment. The movie is in the idea. Because the idea is so strong, the script could have withstood almost any production values at all and would still have worked narratively and dramatically.
Point is, production values are nice and all, but the first thing you need is a great idea that gives rise to a great script. Stick to those things and you don’t need car chases, alien invasions, “great cinematography” or anything else, you’ll be on your way. And you don’t have to shoot it in a house, just about everyone has a unique location available to them. If you have a boat, write a movie that takes place on a boat. If you have an RV, make a movie that takes place in an RV. If you have an abandoned castle nearby, use that. The movie Killing Zoe got made because the producer had access to an abandoned bank that was about to be demolished, so he asked Roger Avery to write a movie that takes place in a bank.
Use what ever is around you, and use your lack of funds to your advantage. Start with an idea, write a movie that’s simple to shoot, and shoot it. Then you’ll have a movie people can see, and if you’ve done your job you won’t need to break into the biz, the biz will come looking for you.
When the previews for Guardians of the Galaxy started showing up in theaters, I was struck by the ways they used Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling.” That song was a nutty novelty hit when I was a wee lad in 1974, and I wondered if anyone else in the theater even remembered the recording, much less felt the sense of nostalgia I did when I heard it. Would people think that “Hooked on a Feeling” was some kind of message from another planet? What could its inclusion in the trailers for a Marvel movie possibly mean, except that, obviously, Guardians of the Galaxy was not a movie to be taken entirely seriously? And yet, that song, and the aesthetic choice that led to its inclusion in the movie, is a key part of understanding the appeal of not just Guardians but of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe project.
Like a lot of things with me these days, the first thing you have to understand about my reaction to Lucy is that I’m old. I’m old enough to have worked at a movie theater in New York when Subway was released, and watched its delirious blend of kinetic cinema, outlandish violence and heartsick romance repeatedly. I’m old enough to have gone to see La Femme Nikita in a movie theater, many times, thrilling to the many ways it was a vast improvement over Subway. I’m old enough to have felt frustrated over the past two decades as director Luc Besson built his gigantic company in France, became a big-budget producer, made computer-animated movies for children and only occasionally made what I’ll call “Luc Besson movies,” that unique blend of kinetic cinema, outlandish violence and heartsick romance that I fell in love with so many years ago. If nothing else, Lucy is a stunning return to form for Besson, at once a thrilling summation and a brilliant leap forward.
Many years ago, I was up for the gig writing the movie adaptation of Scott Westerfeld’s wonderful sci-fi (then) trilogy Uglies, Pretties and Specials. I liked the books a lot and the idea, I thought, was a real fire-cracker: a dystopian future, a sci-fi trilogy, with a female protagonist, where each movie in the trilogy would examine the same society from a different point of view. It had never been done before and it was a huge opportunity. The producer who brought me the books was a respected big-budget sci-fi producer, and the project was set up at a genuine big-deal studio. All I needed to do was get a firm handle on how to tell the story and there was no way the project could not move forward.