Are blockbusters really becoming too intellectualized?

Are blockbusters really becoming too intellectualized? (photo)

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Slate sometimes prides itself for contrarianism, but if there’s a point to Tom Shone’s claim that “Blockbusters have become way too intellectual,” I’m not sure what it is. I’ve read it three times and it becomes more baffling every time, because Shone thinks the main problem with “Up In The Air” is that it wasn’t emotional enough, because he’s really looking forward to “Love and Other Drugs,” in which Pfizer salesman Jake Gyllenhaal falls for Parkinson’s victim Anne Hathaway, and because, well, he believes Hollywood movies are too intellectual and not emotional enough.

It should be noted that Shone himself doesn’t use the word “blockbuster” once — the label is only present in the presumably editor-provided subhead. To co-opt the term anyway, it is halfway true that the modern blockbuster is more overtly “intellectualized” than its predecessors. “Star Wars” is about movie love and good vs. evil, while “The Dark Knight” is openly about the ethics of the surveillance state, entropy and the prisoner’s dilemma. “Superman” is about a dude who can spin the world backwards on its axis and reverse time, while “X-Men” is an allegory for homophobia and tolerance.

One thing most blockbusters do have in common is that they tend to be much more fun to pick apart subtextually than smaller-budget movies, which have to focus and achieve their goals with precision — there’s not much room for error or weird outside influences to sneak in.

04022010_x2.jpgBlockbusters, though, have cash and resources to spare. They also often have scripts that are easily distracted or lavishly incoherent. While that may not make for flawless viewing, it does make things interesting in other ways. Blockbuster casts are frequently stacked with actors possessed of far more acting talent than they’re required to display (see John Malkovich’s upcoming turn in “Transformers 3,” or Ian Holm slumming in “The Day After Tomorrow”), which lends to all kinds of odd connotative experiences, in the same way that it’s impossible to watch “Gandhi” without getting weirded out by Candice Bergen’s presence. Some actors take their images with them no matter where they go.

Of course, you can pick apart blockbusters for subtext all day long for academic ends — the “Alien” series has become a cornerstone of feminist studies. But they’re also unintentionally resonant, overlapping with actors that summon up all kinds of memories and themes they can’t process in ways that don’t require intellectual stretching to pick up on. The great independent films may be better at achieving their goals as intended, but it’s the blockbusters that can, unintentionally, pick up on things that will linger long after they’re meant to. Long after Malkovich’s sole feature directorial effort “The Dancer Upstairs” fades away, we’ll still parse him through these weird paycheck tangents.

[Photos: “Up In The Air,” Paramount, 2009; “X2,” 20th Century Fox, 2003.]


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.