The Wall of Cards

In the film “My Cousin Vinnie” – a comedy classic with a well-deserved reputation – there is a scene in the second half of the movie where Vinnie’s cousin is on the verge of dropping him from the case. Vinnie is defending him from a murder rap, and so far Vinnie’s been caught flat-footed the entire time.

To convince him that he knows what he’s doing, Vinnie uses an analogy: The case built against his cousin might look like a wall of bricks, but it’s not, because he’s innocent. Look at it from the right angle and you realize it’s a wall of cards, ready to topple over at the slightest push.

I’d like to suggest that there’s an analogy here that applies to much of modern media.

Let’s pivot a little. I have noticed that modern media tends to be made up of a lot of houses of cards. My experience leads me to believe there are three types of media: Media where my opinion stays fairly firm, media that I like more on a rewatch/re-read, and media I like less on a rewatch/re-read. The first category makes up the majority of my media. The second category is relatively small; off the top of my head it includes one or two books, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, a couple of Miyazaki films, and the original Star Wars (retroactively titled “A New Hope”). All of these I thought were merely okay originally but liked more on a rewatch.

The last category was originally a small one, but over time I’ve noticed it grow larger and larger, to the point where I’ve started checking my first responses to things. It includes “The Force Awakens”. It includes all three Peter Jackson “Lord of the Rings” films. It includes the show “Gravity Falls”. It includes the show “Jessica Jones”. All of these are things I liked, even loved, at one point in time but as I’ve looked back at them have noticed more and more flaws, occasionally to the point that I can’t even re-watch them – particularly in the cases of “The Force Awakens” and “Jessica Jones”. And they’re only a few examples!

Now I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been so fooled into a strong first impression on this stuff. And believe me, sometimes I backtrack so much I actually get retroactively embarrassed by it. The Force Awakens for example – when it first came out I actually wrote an article about how much I liked it and why I thought it was even better than the original Star Wars(!!!). And yet yesterday I just had a long conversation with a friend where both of us did nothing but spend the whole time absolutely tearing apart the film, and now I’m no longer interested in seeing the sequel. I originally wrote a glowing review of “Jessica Jones”, and then only recently wrote two articles dissecting and analyzing all of the places where it failed…and now I can’t even watch it anymore without flinching.

What is going on here? Why is modern Hollywood having this effect on me so frequently?

And now we get to come back to the original metaphor. Modern Hollywood is like crafting movies out of houses of cards that look like bricks. You go in, you sit there for a few hours and you admire the craftsmanship of the houses. You get wowed at the fun and cool ways the houses have been put together, and you leave appreciative of the time you took to tour.

And then you start thinking back on things.

Come to think of it, was it really so well assembled? Sure it looked cool, but honestly it didn’t fit together very well. And now that you mention it, when you looked at it from the side things did look awfully thin…

This, I think, is how a lot of these movies manage to “trick” so many people into thinking they’re good. Take “The Force Awakens”. As many people have pointed out, it’s sort of an updated version of “A New Hope”, and as a result of using that tried and true formula it still manages to squeeze out a lot of fun…out of a first viewing.

And then you think about it. You look at it from the side…and suddenly that structure seems very thin indeed.

What is the point of Finn in this movie? What did he add? He wasn’t very heroic; Rey was able to fight off three bandits entirely on her own while he stood there gaping, and pilot a starship on her own, and use Jedi mind powers on her own, and use a light saber on her own. Why is he there?

So are we just accepting that the state of the galaxy is pretty much exactly the same as it was during “A New Hope”? So that whole series didn’t matter?

Han is in exactly the same place as he was before, except this time with extra “failed loser dad” thrown in? And no longer with Leia? And not a respected war hero? He just sucks?

So wait, now his punk kid is going to kill him in front of three people as he fails at his final mission, accomplishes nothing, and falls to the bottom of a literal bottomless pit, never to be seen again? THAT is the end of the story of Han Solo?

How is Rey, a rather small young woman, able to fight off three bandits entirely on her own with a stick?

How has Rey learned how to use a Jedi mind trick?

Why is Rey the one who rescues Finn? Shouldn’t this have been Finn’s moment? I mean, what else is he doing there? It’s not like Rey is any better trained than he is.

Kylo Ren is kind of a wimp, isn’t he?

Hold on, ANOTHER Death Star…but bigger? This is Death Star number THREE. You don’t have ANYTHING better?

Why is Finn a “good” stormtrooper? He “Just is?” You know that really doesn’t make any sense, right?

I can go on. Look at it straight on, those are fine bricks; investigate any closer, and things get awfully flimsy.

Hollywood has gotten very adept at figuring out how to make the proverbial pavlovian dog drool. Everybody talked about what they hated about the prequels, so they cut themselves off from the prequels completely and went back to basics, so to speak…in trappings only. Abrams got the atmosphere right, the tone right, the style right. TFA had characters that were, if not particularly well thought out, at least memorable, a far cry from the Mace Windus and Qui Gon Jins of the world. And the film was well cast. As much as I dislike the character of Rey even I have to admit that Daisy Ridley is a babe. Finn might be a simpering wimp, but John Boyega played him with a goofy charm that made him likable anyhow.

Abrams just never got around to telling a good story. He understood what made Star Wars look good, and in some ways he even understood what made a film feel like a Star Wars film. But he copied mindlessly. He didn’t get why the Star Wars stories were worth telling in the first place. Lucas got his ideas from old pulpy space adventures; Abrams got his ideas from Lucas. It’s a copy of a copy, and feels like it. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the movie was both good and original. It’s just that every part that was original wasn’t good, and every part that was good wasn’t original.

And nothing felt thought out, because nothing needed to be. As soon as Abrams could figure out a way to mold the story into a vaguely Star Wars related shape he apparently felt he didn’t have any reason to fine tune the story anymore. To be fair to him the box office receipts certainly do bear this out.

“Jessica Jones”‘s problem isn’t exactly the same, but it is related. The show nails its atmosphere, and is very well cast, and even created a compelling central conflict to anchor season one. Because of this, when I first saw the show I was very impressed with it. And then I switched angles and realized the bricks were cards.

Like TFA, JJ isn’t good so much as adept at making the Pavlovian dog drool. Solid premise? Check. Interesting main hero? Check – Jessica may not be likable but she is interesting, with a clear character arc. Noir infused atmosphere? Check. Handsome pretty boy with charisma cast as a mesmerizing main villain? Check again.

But as with TFA “Jessica Jones” does just enough to manipulate positive reviews and then proceeds to half-ass its story, coming up with the laziest possible solution to every problem and not even attempting to keep its own internal logic consistent. Even a couple of minutes of thought would make it clear to anyone with a brain that they were being completely contradictory in regards to Kilgrave’s powers, for example, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s just lazy decision piled on top of lazy decision that nobody put any effort into fixing because nobody had to. They knew the dog would drool; whether or not the food was any good was really besides the point.

And that’s really what I’m seeing all across the modern media landscape: Work after work that knows what the audience “wants” on a surface level and uses this knowledge to create superficially appealing media that nevertheless has absolutely no substance to it whatsoever. We’re being treated over and over again to pigs in lipstick, and over and over again we’re falling for the ruse. None of this is helped by the fact that the current critical machine has been inching slowly leftward for years, and has seemed to reach critical mass now that we’re in the Trump era.

We need to wise up – myself included. Take a deep breath. Think. Because what looks good to us at first may turn out to be nothing but a house of cards made to look like bricks the second we turn our heads. My only advice in this regard from a guy who has fallen for this trick a few times now is that if you have some sort of criticism that makes you go “It’s good, but…” really think about the implications of that “but”. In retrospect I realize that if I’d actually cared to pay attention to things I knew were flawed I probably wouldn’t have been taken in in the first place.

One last thing – for all the flaws of the prequels, for all of the well-deserved contempt constantly heaped upon them, I do need to give Lucas some credit where it’s due: At least the prequels were different. Lucas took risks, he built his world in unexpected ways, he made bold and surprising storytelling moves.

Did those moves actually work? Well, no, not for the most part. The prequels were terrible, and there’s no defending them, especially not after hearing Mr. Plinkett tear them to shreds. But frankly I’m just about ready to accept “Honestly terrible” over “Warmed over pablum”. We may well have reached that point…