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About awkwardtreed

Writes things. Eats more things. Enjoys trivia a bit too much. Would've been a velociraptor if given the option....

When is a Crime Film Not a Crime Film: Genre Subversion in Gangster Squad

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You’re watching a movie. It’s one you’ve been looking forward to seeing for months. You’ve watched all the trailers, read all the press releases, and even watched a back-catalogue of the actress’ other films. Besides, you love a good Western and that’s what this is. Wait…now they’re in space. Why are they in space? Wasn’t this a Western? It’s got a guy on a horse in it, but now they’re in space? You’re so confused right now. You want to walk out but that’s rude, and then it hits you in the face. Your popcorn that is. Because you’ve just had a eureka moment that’s caused the involuntary spasming of arms in exclamation. This was never a Western. It was always a Sci-Fi. And they’ve been dropping little clues throughout the whole movie that this was only going to end in space.

But before you cry that Hollywood has made off into the sunset with your money via duplicitous means, and swear off ever going to the movies again – just stop. Take a deep breath, because this isn’t about the movie industry lying to you (well, it is a little bit). This is about the movie industry creating new and innovative ways to tell stories. It’s about putting so much lipstick on the pig that, while there may indeed still be some pig-like features under there, you can’t see them through all that Revlon.
 
 
Introducing The Bacon

A disgusted Emma Stone realised that even Ryan Gosling has a bad side...

A disgusted Emma Stone realised that even Ryan Gosling has a bad side…

Gangster Squad, Ruben Fleischer’s follow-up to the 2009 hit Zombieland, has everything a big Hollywood blockbuster ought to have. A plethora of big-name stars (a lot of whom are very, very attractive), a great script based on a book that of course is loosely based on a true story, and just the right mix of explosive action and steaming hot romance. That mix sees Sean Penn play Mickey Cohen, a crook bent on taking over Los Angeles, while other A-listers play the cops charged with bringing him down. It’s The Untouchables with Josh Brolin playing Sean Connery and Ryan Gosling trading quips with Emma Stone, making him…a sexier Kevin Costner?

On face value alone, Gangster Squad is an unabashed Gangster/Crime film – hell, the movie is called GANGSTER Squad. Gangster movies are okay. There’s nothing wrong with them. But unfortunately ‘okay’ is not good enough in the current market. ‘Okay’ skips by and then is never heard of again. This is why Gangster Squad does something remarkably clever to ensure that it doesn’t just skim across the surface – another gangster movie drowning in a sea of Goodfellas and The Sopranos. It doesn’t let itself be a Gangster movie. Yes, on paper this thing screams Gangster film, but just because it quacks like duck and looks like duck doesn’t mean it’s not a pigeon in a very good duck costume.
 
 
It’s A War Film With Gangsters In It
The opening moments of Gangster Squad begin with a date stamp over a skyline. Los Angeles, 1949. And that is perhaps the best indicator of what this movie is, better than the label on the DVD casing; better even than the title itself. That date says a lot. It was a time where the world was re-building itself. When the Second World War ended, it left a much deeper mark than its predecessor. This was a war that featured both genocide and the invention of a weapon capable of wiping out entire cities in seconds. And we arrive in film full of characters with these sorts of things lurking in their back-stories.

Every member of Brolin’s crack squadron of guerilla cops fought in the war in some capacity. Gosling’s Jerry Wooters was a pilot. Brolin’s John O’Mara was an officer. And while it’s never expressly mentioned what role Nick Nolte’s Chief Parker served during the war, it is clear from his mannerisms and phrasings that he served his country in some respect. It is all of these little pieces of contextual information that highlight Gangster Squad’s true genre allegiances. However it’s not just War film in terms of the historical context and character design; the film literally depicts a war.

The secret to the film’s genre lies not in its trench coats or fedoras, but the dog tags and battle scars that are hidden beneath.

The secret to the film’s genre lies not in its trench coats or fedoras, but the dog tags and battle scars that are hidden beneath.

Like Taratino’s Basterds and Captain America’s POW revolutionaries, the ‘cops’ in Gangster Squad aren’t doing things by the book. They aren’t there to gather evidence and start an investigation into the dealings of Mickey Cohen; they aren’t even working within the law. It’s established early on in the film that O’Mara and his boys are not doing this as police officers, but as soldiers in a guerilla war. They don’t have their badges to help them and Nolte’s Chief Parker makes it clear that they will be working on their own to dismantle Cohen’s criminal organization from the inside out. A team of soldiers dispensing their own form of justice to bring down an enemy invasion. Now doesn’t that plot sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound like a story ripped from the trenches and front-lines?

Hatchetman (Mickey Giacomazzi): You can’t shoot me, you’re a cop.

The film is peppered with War film standards. Sneaking into the enemy camp to find information? Wire-tapping Cohen’s mansion. A midnight ambush in the jungle? Ambushing the drug delivery trucks in the backwoods of LA. Blowing up the enemies central base/communications centre? Bombing Cohen’s central nightclub/bank. The goal of the squad isn’t to capture but to destroy, something that cannot be done if they were cops in a crime flick. There’d be something jarring seeing police officers committing some of the acts of violence demonstrated in the film, something unsettling that wouldn’t necessarily get the audience totally off-side but would certainly make it difficult for them to be totally on side.

This is negated by removing their badges and making them soldiers. When soldiers shoot the bad guys in the face with a shotgun in the street (as in above exchange between Gosling and a nameless thug), it’s a heroic act. If a cop does it, we fall into a murky trap of seeing these men lower themselves down to the level of criminals. So while Brolin’s merry men start off of as men in blue, they’re more Band of Brothers than they are Cops.
 
 
What About Sub-Genres?
Who’s teaching you all these words? Are you reading over that guy’s shoulder again? That’s rude. And no I am not avoiding the question. What about sub-genre? Well we’ve got a bit of a noirish thing going on there, and there’s a love-story buried amongst the bullets. If anything though, this film is a War-Western. Yes, a Western.

Looking beyond the bleedingly obvious example (there is a character who wears a cowboy hat, spurs and shoots like a maverick) we can find clues pointing to the genre of the Wild West. There’s the setting for one. The film takes place in LA, which is situated on the west coast of America. There’s a lot of sitting around in empty bars in the desert. There’s a final shoot-out/showdown that is an excellent execution of a Mexican stand-off (a Western favourite), and like I said before there is a guy who wears a cowboy hat, spurs and spins his goddamn pistols. SPINS THEM.

But looking at it from a more serious angle, one of the staples of Western genres is that the hero is usually a lawman or sheriff (formerly or currently) who has an almost archaic sense of justice, a justice that does not line up with the rest of the society they find themselves in. John O’Mara is so old school he bleeds sepia. It is his staunch and old-fashioned methodology that draws the attention of Parker and instigates the main plot. His sense of honour and justice conflict with almost everyone around him, including his wife, but he can’t help himself. The film’s protagonist is a cowboy through and through, a grizzled lawman fighting on a foreign frontier while his brand of justice is slowly dying out.

So while on face of it, genre sounds easy enough to understand, it is a tricky beast. Good films often have several and some films have genres solely designed for marketing purposes, but one thing can be sure of: just because it’s dressed like one thing doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the story. You might have to peel back a few layers of lipstick to see what sort of pig is hiding underneath.

And as for that title, well I don’t think Cowboy Soldier Cop Squad rolls off the tongue as easily…

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Spilling Out Of The Closet: World-Building in Monsters University

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Hi, how are you? What about this weather hey? Yeah and that controversial social issue is just so controversial right now! Did you hear what that prominent member of society had to say about it? And the backlash? I know, right? Here, take a seat. Not that one; that’s mine. I’d offer you something to drink but we’re out of milk, and I don’t trust you enough to leave you alone in my house while I go and get some. Trust issues; YAY! Whatever. I’m Tom, not that Tom (fifth most popular boy’s name in the year we were born- source: my brain), and it’s my first time – please be gentle.

Anyway now that we’ve got the awkward introductions out of the way we can move onto the meatier parts of the conversation and get serious up in here.
 
 
There’s A World Hiding In Your Closet

And it's full of familiar faces...

And it’s full of familiar faces…

Last month saw the release of Pixar’s latest installment in its collection of highly successful animated hits: Monsters University, a follow-up to 2001s Monsters Inc. This prequel tells the story of how Billy Crystal’s Mike Wazowski and John Goodman’s loveable Sully became friends after meeting at University. It is also only the studio’s fourth sequel. This last statistic is perhaps the most intriguing considering that we live in a market where film studios enjoy flogging franchises to death once they’ve hit onto a good thing. It’s a market where we have four Shrek films, The Hobbit gets split into three movies and there are way too many Die Hards, which is something I never thought I would say.

Whatever that says about what we as an audience go and see, it says more about Pixar’s integrity that they have only made sequels where a sequel has presented itself. Considering their most recent sequel, Cars 2, bombed both commercially and critically you could understand if there was some reluctance to tread down that path again. Luckily, Monsters University delivers the goods on all fronts. It raked in a killing at the box office, and this big kid can assure you that it was full of those trademark Pixar moments that make you laugh and then force you not to cry in front of hundreds of school-kids who want to know, why that man is breathing heavily into his popcorn?

The reason for this is simple: The world of the monsters is beautifully realized on all levels. And thus we arrive at the POINT.

World-building sounds like a job for the art department. It sounds like something involving rendering and pencils and geographical scoping. And that’s a part of it. However creating a ‘world’ is so much more than just the visual aspects the audiences see on the screen, and a lot of it is done in the pre-production stages of a film. In fact, a lot of the world is established while the script is still being written, and so it should. After all, the world is one of the most important aspects of any film. It sets up more than just the ‘where’ but also more complex things such as social class, economy, rules and sets up how characters are going to interact within said world.

Monsters University has three excellent examples of this sort of world building.
 
 
1. It’s Animal House Without John Belushi

The film taps into our pre-conceived understanding of ‘college’ films and the stories told within those story worlds.

The film taps into our pre-conceived understanding of ‘college’ films and the stories told within those story worlds.

Yes it’s a movie about monsters, yes it’s set in an alternate dimension that is somehow accessible via, and yes one of its main characters is a centipede with wings – but at it’s heart this film is a college movie. It taps into the same world as Animal House, Greek and The House Bunny. This is why it works. Monsters University takes these conventions and story elements that we understand and indentify with, and works them into a world that is total alien – but still feels familiar because we’ve seen these world ‘tropes’ before.

The story hinges on the classic college experience. There is a rag-tag group of underdogs in a frat/sorority that we fall in love with. There is a group of much cooler people in another rival frat/sorority. There is even a hard-nosed Dean of Students, who has an open dislike of our heroes, looking to find any reason to turf them out the gates. And while this sounds like it is undermining the film by saying it’s been done before, it is in fact the opposite.

Monsters University builds a familiar world, and then using that as a blueprint it expands on it and manipulates it to create something new and exciting. These little additions are things like the letters of the frat house’s spelling out onomatopoeias like RAR and HSS, or that the traditionally crabby librarian is giant slug with monstrous tentacles, and they serve the dual function of building a world that makes sense for monsters and a world that makes sense for the college environment it is portraying.
 
 
2. Our World Is Worse

The monster’s world is bright, while our world is a dark place full of shadows were the monsters are forced to become much scarier.

The monster’s world is bright, while our world is a dark place full of shadows were the monsters are forced to become much scarier.

I wrote earlier about how one of the functions of world-building is to set-up the rules of that world. For example, in a film like The Dark Knight, one of the key rules of that particular world is that Batman does not kill anyone. This is set up early and is brought back into the film as a pertinent plot point. In Monsters University, one of the key rules of the world is that humans are toxic and that the human world is a dangerous place indeed. This is simply building on a premise underscored throughout the first film. The beauty of prequels/sequels/spin-offs etc is that elements of the world are already established:

“There’s nothing more toxic or deadly than a human child. A single touch could kill you.”
– Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn)

But of course you have to reinforce this. The above line is from the first ten minutes of Monsters Inc. In Monsters University, we again get a warning about the dangers of the human world quite early in the piece during Mike Wazowski’s school trip to a real working scare floor. So the key rule of the story world we are inhabiting is set up from the outset, and while it makes way for more rules during the midsections of the story, it is this rule that comes back into play in the finale, where we see Mike & Sully stranded in the human world.

Now this underpinning law to the entire world isn’t only demonstrated through spoken warnings, but also in character’s reactions. For example, even the unflappable Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) is panicked by the idea of something coming through from the other side. This adds another layer to the world’s key rule, but Pixar’s approach to the creation of worlds is a three-strike-punch and the final layer is indeed added in post-production.

Aesthetically we see from the outset that the monsters live in a vibrant world. They are brightly coloured and everything around them is fun and exciting. However, once they cross that threshold between home and the realm of men, they transform into something else. They become fearsome beasts with claws, that lurk in the shadows. This is because our world is a lot scarier than theirs. Our world is the place where they have to truly be monsters. This is also evident in the depictions of the real world as having a lot of dark colours and long shadows.
 
 
3. It’s Right Here In Our World
It’s not unusual for films to create websites or online spaces to advertise their upcoming blockbuster, but it’s usually a separation of the film world and the marketing world. However with Monsters University there isn’t this separation as much as there is just a branching out of the story world out into the real world. A bridge between the two, rather than two separate islands.

The Monsters University website (which I urge you to check out here) is set out like a university website with information on enrollment, classes and accommodation. There is even a merchandise store where you can buy four-armed hoodies (sadly this is restricted to shipping within the US). But perhaps this is the next step for world-building in films. To combine story elements and aesthetic elements, but to also then go the next step up and incorporate commercial elements into the world.

Monsters University does is. It bridges the gap into the audience and allows them in turn to add their own touches to world. To be a part of it. To go through to the other side of the closet…