In Film (and All Art) Bold is Beautiful; Boring Isn't

Prometheus (2012)

I can't be a movie theatre zombie. I can't just sit there and accept average. I want a film to swell up some sort of feelings, make me question what I’ve seen, think about things on a larger scale or go for a far flung freaking mind trip.

I have only seen two movies in the theater this summer. Sure, there are a few that I’ve missed that I may get around to, and a few more that I’ll check out on home release. But still—only two for someone whose life revolves around film. It’s not really a money concern, but rather an aesthetic and entertainment one. I haven’t seen much that is appealing in either way. It’s reached the point where hardly anything piques my interest.

I have my comfort food, associated with various memories, forged at impressionable times in my life. It sits there on the shelf for when I need it. I don’t feel the need to waste my time on more mediocre product. What I want is something different, something interesting; something that takes me out of my comfort zone and instills some type of emotion—even if it's absolute bafflement.

Yes, this sounds like the typical critic’s lament, that most Hollywood movies are essentially the same. And, after all, aren’t there only seven different stories to be told, dressed up with mitigating levels of successful variation? If it’s done really well, has great writing, interesting characters, actual jaw-dropping action, then it’s worth the investment of time and money. But if it’s just another rendition of the superhero template...

The Avengers. After years of build-up, the first of many swan songs arrives and competently fits into the Marvel Motion Picture Prototype. It’s a well-produced movie: every member of the cast and crew plays their parts nicely, there’s some clever (and corny) dialogue, the effects look good—and that’s about it. Despite the threat of intergalactic doom, there is never any real fear that Earth, or New York, or anyone on screen would come to any harm. The Avengers are awesome and they’ll save the world in a similar manner to what they did in all their previous movies.

That all these actors are each signed on for another four films, that the whole thing screams franchise and set-up for more does not help. It has only become an event because it combines all these characters and does it well enough so that they can survive for another day. Other than that it’s nothing special.

The film is interchangeable with nearly any other recent superhero film. From a financial standpoint, the formula works. A billion and a half dollars is hard to argue with. But are financial risk and creative risk tied together? Even creative variation? If this movie had done one thing to make me worried that the bad guys might win, that all our heroes wouldn’t work out there problems, that one of them might not come out alive, then I would be interested in seeing the next one. But as of now, I could really care less. Another intergalactic threat is on the rise? The Avengers will stand tall at the end. No worries.

It’s the happy ending, but I’m not sure it really sends me home happy. Is expectedness equal to pleasure? Looking back at the beginning of another franchise, even if it is a little cliché, Star Wars, provides a different point of view. Again, the heroes win and go home happy, but a larger evil is still out there, not totally defeated. The battle is won, but the war rages on (in the next installment). But for a while there, it seemed as if our heroes might not make it out alive. We’ve seen the devastation that Vader and the Death Star can cause, taking out Obi Wan Kenobi and a planet in impressive fashion. So the heroes win, but barely.

The Avengers win from the moment they first appear on the screen. The conflict between their egos is negligible because they’ll fight anyway. They’re superheroes--that’s what they do. The bad guys have barely done any damage when the movie moves to its final action scene. By the time Hulk smashes the battle has already been won, Thor can take Loki home for a spanking, and the villains of the next installment should realize that it’s not worth the effort. The villains are essentially fighting an uphill battle when it should be the other way around.

Maybe that’s the problem. The saying is a hero is only as good as its villain and it’s true, especially in the case of film. Every classic and most modern movies have interesting villains, except, ironically, the recent slate of comic movies. From Nosferatu to White Heat to The Terminator, villains have been iconic and deadly. The aforementioned Star Wars has Darth Vader. Batman has the Joker. Harry Potter has Voldemort. Avatar has Republicans.

The Avengers has Loki—who was already used to middling effect in the even more middling Thor. And those aliens. Whoever they are. They want to take over Earth? At least blow up some cities to show us what you’re made of. Even Independence Day did that. I should want to see the hero take down his enemies; I should loathe the villain, I should want to see him defeated.

So what was the other movie? Prometheus. The early trailers were intriguing (I avoided later ones), I didn’t know what was going to happen every step of the way (except that it would likely be bad) and the love-it-or-hate-it debates demonstrated that people had actual opinions about the film. It wasn’t just OK. In depth discussions on a summer blockbuster? Not since Inception.

So what makes it intriguing beyond the initial mystery of what is going on with this planet? First of all, there is risk involved. People die. We aren’t assured everyone is going to make it out alive, or even that anyone will make it out alive. They may not be the most developed characters, but outside of the Hulk and Black Widow, none of the Avengers were actually developed in their ensemble piece. And yet, I felt much more worried about characters whose name I couldn’t remember than I did about Iron Man, who’ve I spent three movies (over six hours) with. And yes, killing off characters is a horror movie staple, but if you’re leading an expedition on a foreign planet or defending New York from extraterrestrial beings, it seems more plausible that both sides will suffer casualties and setbacks. The establishment of a threat, that things may not turn out alright in the end, that there will be lasting effects gives the audience an emotional investment.

As an audience, we want to see our heroes continue to see their journey because of the mystery, because of what they will discover about our history and the origin of our selves. When we find out our creators may also be our destroyers, it pulls us right along. Why do they want to destroy what they created? The villain is frustratingly dismissive, so god-like in his superiority that he feels we are not worth and answer. It hurts. And why use this particular weapon—what, as described in the original Alien, is a “perfect organism?” Did they make a mistake with us? Or are they fearful that we’ve built our tower too high?

It’s these types of questions that lead to debates and extend the life of the movie. No one questions the reasoning behind The Avengers non-descript villains or what their next move will be (hint: attack Earth and/or The Avengers). But the fact that weeks later, people are still talking about Prometheus, what certain images represented, what certain scenes meant, how humans are tied to xenomorphs—in addition to debates on creation and what-the-hell that alien weapon actually did—shows that it had power enough to strike a chord. People, positively or negatively (some questions are likely just plot holes), were invested in the film. Personally, if it creates dialogue, it does something right. That a movie has lasting effects outside of the two hours invested it is more consequential from an artistic standpoint than anything else.

The cinematography and production design combine to make our human heroes and their ship seem impeccably small on the scale of universal importance. Instead of following behind them as they explore the alien caverns, seeing what they see, the camera is in front of our protagonists, capturing their facial expressions as they peer into the unknown. Computer and practical effects weave together to give these aliens threats a concreteness outside of the video-game-esque interlopers of The Avengers. Certainly the film is not perfect: there’s plot holes, underdeveloped characters and the Alien connection is a little forced. But I’d rather see a flawed and interesting movie any day over something that I’ve essentially already seen half a dozen times.

A 70-year-old, established Hollywood player is pushing things further than a younger director who’s continually toyed with the fringes of mainstream. The Avengers hits all the right notes, but we know those notes too well. How exactly is this going to usher in a new age of superhero movies? Why should I see more of what is essentially the same thing? Drawing back on another Robert Downey Jr. series, the Sherlock Holmes films may be campy action pieces, but at least the action pieces are constructed in a way that ties to how the way the character thinks. Downey’s Holmes isn’t a non-descript action hero, the way he is able to gage action and reaction in a split second (stretched out in time), provides an interesting twist to his quickly edited physical assaults.

However, other than the Hulk, the powers and attributes of the heroes in the Avengers are almost undistinguishable. There’s not much in the way of teamwork, nothing cool that stands out, nothing that shows why we would want to see these guys team-up. At the end of it all, despite the destruction that is carelessly played off, the characters do not seem to have been affected at all.

And that’s kind of the point. I want to be invested somehow, whether it be emotionally, psychologically or intellectually. I want a film to swell up some sort of feelings, make me question what I’ve seen, think about things on a larger scale or go for a far flung freaking mind trip. Great works of art go beyond technical skill and seek to invest the spectator into the arrangement. Individuals may be able to project their own emotions, are able to derive from their own experiences upon a painting, novel or film. The particulars of the emotional and psychological grasp do not have to be universal—it's simply the fact that emotions and interpretations exist.

Paul Klee\'s Twittering Machine (Die Zwitscher-Maschine) (partial), 1922

Paul Klee’s paintings, such as The Twittering Machine, are open to various interpretations. The Twittering Machine has invoked both whimsical reminisces of Alice in Wonderland and darker preponderances on the distortion of nature via the industrial age (hence, Twitter). Is Grant Wood’s American Gothic a father and daughter or a husband and wife? What about the unreliable narrator in Shutter Island? The dichotomy of ghost versus psychosis in Turn of the Screw? What exactly is happening and did happen to girl from the cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene?

David Lynch has based most of his career on baffling audiences with the idea that in can be nigh impossible to distinguish dreams from reality. And then there are the nearly infinite interpretations of Shakespeare, from biblical to '30s-era fascism to teen comedy. The ability to read beyond surface value into a work of art makes it both interesting and rewarding. If it's those two things, then I don’t feel I have wasted my time and I could care less if it's “perfect”. Anyway, nothing is truly perfect, and the ideals of perfect do not last forever. 'Perfect' can always be improved upon.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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