2012: A “Top Seven” List

ted couch potatoes

No Monologism, Not Now (full screen ahead, seven interpretations, seven intertexts)

In reflecting upon the films of 2012, I thought I would deconstruct the idea of a top ten list, and try to build something very different. And, who better to consult than Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction. In his hilarious essay, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven missiles, seven missives),” Derrida ridicules the idea of nuclear criticism at the very Johns Hopkins University conference meant to inaugurate an interdisciplinary study of the very real threat, in 1984, of thermonuclear apocalypse.

Much less is at stake for me watching movies, but I follow Derrida that seven is a more Biblical number than ten. And, instead of trying to force my idea upon you, dear internet reader, of what would make one film better than another, I will explore the way in which a basic mode of cinematic language, intertextuality finds its way into a range of high stakes, high budget Hollywood films. Indeed, the seven moneymaking films I want to call your attention to ranked in the top 65 out of 600 or so films released by the American film industry in 2012. My chosen films are, in order of North American box office grosses as of December 2012: 1) Pixar’s Brave ($236M), 2) Seth McFarlane’s Ted ($218M), 3) Ridley Scott’s Prometheus ($126M), 4) Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln ($66M), 5) Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator ($59M), 6) Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom ($45M), and 7) The Three Stooges ($44M).

In my book on intertextuality and the American cinema, Engaging Film Criticism (2004), drawing on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, I argue that films should be considered within a dialogical play of referential intertexts (films deliberately engaged by filmmakers) and imaginary intertexts (films engaged by critics to make better sense of the films at hand). In addition, one crucial discovery I made in studying the referencing of classical Hollywood films by contemporary ones, was that often what I call secondary intertexts (those which seemingly have little to do with the overall plot structure) are often far more fecund from a critical standpoint than the more obvious primary intertexts.

For example, to consider only the 1970s works of Steven Spielberg, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the primary intertexts have to do with imagination, Pinocchio (Walt Disney, 1944) and science-fiction, but the most revealing moment is when the family destroyed by the arrival of space aliens is depicted watching The Ten Commandments on television, thus establishing the cinematic credentials of Close Encounters via the ur-text of the blockbuster, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1955 masterpiece which grossed an order of magnitude more money than its nearest competitor that year. As a very different example, Spielberg’s earlier Jaws (1975) should be interested in John Huston’s Moby-Dick (1956), another fish story, but instead finds its voice in the war film, particularly when the crusty seaman Quint tells the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in what is perhaps the most riveting and revealing five minutes in any film of the 1970s.

But back to 2012. You’ve already read many of my intertextual approaches to these films at Walter’s World. Moonrise Kingdom intertextually reworks composer Benjamin Britten’s opera, Noye’s Flood in order to interrogate failing paternal masculinity in our time. In perhaps the year’s most under-appreciated film, Sacha Baron Cohen revisits Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1941) to say something equally scathing about the lunatic running North Korea, and formerly Libya.

The films of 2012 featured a full range of intertextual approaches. The anti-evolutionist nonsense of the opening of Prometheus was saved for me by its secondary intertext, Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), thus establishing a critique of the colonial impulse on ships such as the Nostromo from Alien, rather than allowing us to wallow in the fact that we are watching a film far inferior to that 1979 masterpiece. Ironically, given my invocation of Spielberg’s masterpieces of the 1970s, his 2012 offering Lincoln suffers from a complete failure of the intertextual imagination. Rather than pressuring the collisions of the 19th century—the abolitionism of the radical republicans versus the anti-slavery of Abraham Lincoln, led there by Frederick Douglass—Spielberg’s film contents itself with presenting the Lincoln of simplistic schoolrooms.

The great triumph of the intertextual imagination in 2012 cinema was Brave, a film which continued the Pixar artistic tradition of deploying the full gamut of intertextual possibilities. The film engages both primary, referential intertexts, such as the archery competition from The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, 1938), as well as a secondary intertext of considerable power, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), but also allowing room for my imaginative intertextual play: when Merida throws herself on her mother the bear, the film re-enacts the powerful ending of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959).

In general, from an intertextualist’s point of view, 2012 has been something of a disappointment when compared to the winter of 2011, when both Hugo and The Artist forwarded perhaps the most complex referential cinematic one-two punch of the new century. In the former, Martin Scorsese brilliantly fuses the tragic story of Georges Melies and the birth of narrative cinema, to his regular obsessions with destructive violence, by invoking (falsely, historically) World War I’s horrors as the reason for the magician’s decline. The Artist, for its part, swallows whole the soundtrack from Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) as it meanders through the representational garden of Hollywood, from the referential (Singin’ in the Rain) to the imaginative (Citizen Kane).

It may be that 2012 should be remembered, not for failing to live up to the seriousness of Hugo and The Artist, but instead for engaging highly comedic forms of intertextuality. The funniest movie of the year was clearly The Three Stooges, re-animating the chaotic, Surrealist slapstick of the non-narrative comedy short via the contemporary Hollywood multiplex feature. But the greatest comedic intertextual triumph of the year came for me from the most unexpected place. Having taken over half of the Fox network in the US, Seth McFarlane’s rip-offs of The SimpsonsFamily Guy and their ilk—misfire at least an order of magnitude more frequently than they strike their comedic targets. And yet, because of the sheer quantity of jokes, his television sitcoms remain among the funniest things on American television.

In this sense, McFarlane is the televisual equivalent of the Zucker Brothers, the anarchic creators of Airplane (1980), a film with a similar miss to hit comedic ratio. Indeed, a hilarious moment in McFarlane’s wonderful 2012 film, Ted recreates the disco scene from Airplane shot for shot, to hilarious effect. But for an intertextual film scholar, Ted’s triumph takes place in its film-long invocation of Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980), a great cult science-fiction film. At the beginning of Ted, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) and his teddy bear, magically come to life and grown up into a foul-mouthed lecherous beast, discuss Sam J. Jones, Queen, and the other absurdities of the film as they watch it on television. After John declares his confusion as to how the camp film could be so bad and good at the same time, Ted mutters, “Yeah, it’s a study in contradictions.” The fact that the most astute act of criticism to be found within a 2012 film comes from a little toy obsessed with anal sex is enough to keep me coming back to the movies for at least another year.

–Walter Metz