Monday, May 16, 2016
Beyond Simply Treading Water...
It would be nice if we had a world where people would simply be happy in going to the movies to see beautiful sharks gliding smoothly and expertly through the water, content in seeing these glorious creatures interacting in their natural environment while spending their lives as a vital cog in the ecological cycle of our planet.
It would be nice, but it's not realistic. Sure, you can put out a documentary now and again, such as Disney's Oceans, and have some marvelous footage of sharks included in the mix, and you will get a certain audience. Or you can put out, on a much more limited level, a doc like Sharkwater to bring in more specialized crowds that, like me, believe in saving sharks for the good of the oceans, the world, and mankind in turn. But you will probably get even smaller audience for something like that, or you will have to tour with such a film to build those crowds. Or you can stick to television docs like Sir David Attenborough and give us BBC series after BBC series of pure scientific wonderment, with a more than generous sprinkling of sharky goodness in the mix. The audience is definitely out there for such productions, but the ease of access for such shows ensures that they will likely never end up on the big screen (except in rare instances like a premiere, or an IMAX film in a museum screening room). So, sharks, in their natural state, are rarely seen in real movie theatres.
The movie industry -- as in, the entertainment world at large -- is still pretty much resigned to having sharks fulfill one prime role in their works. And just as it has been since the advent of storytelling, it's the same role that much of the real world assigns to these creatures automatically as well: that of a toothy menace... a mindless eating machine... a killer. Worse, a killer intent with villainously plotting to devour as many people as possible. And no matter how much shark conversation groups, or their fellow enlightened citizens, try to turn the tide (so to speak), the fact is that shark movies -- ahem, shark movies where sharks are only evil and vicious and menacing -- get media attention.
However, most shark movies don't even make it to the theatres nowadays nor are they even made with theatrical distribution as a primary goal. When you think about it for a second, beyond the Jaws series and a couple of smaller examples, sharks have never really taken off at the modern box office the way vampires, dinosaurs, zombies, monsters, and aliens have. But cinematic sharks thrive lurking, dangerous, and entirely lucrative elsewhere. Cable, online streaming, and retail home video (still swimming about out there) are now the primary target areas for makers of shark flicks, and they apparently pull in boffo ratings and sales. Ask Syfy Channel about their endless, ultra-cheap variations on shark films (their massively popular Sharknado series is the biggest, most outrageous, and well-marketed example, with a fourth installment, subtitled The 4th Awakens, on its way in July), or their other flicks where sharks are combined physically with other supposedly vicious creatures (Sharktopus), placed into mortal combat with other absurdly large, fanciful creatures (Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus) or a melding of each of these categories (Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf).
The thankful part is that the further these films get from the actual, original shark form, the more grounded in pure fantasy nonsense the films get. It is harder to connect these film sharks to reality the more we are laughing at the resulting product. The other thankful part is that because the quality -- in nearly every other area but marketing -- is so cheap and shoddy, it is almost impossible to take a single example of Syfy shark promotion seriously. The downside is that the impetus for these films -- and it is a primal fear that the target audience seems never to shake -- is still the same: the shark is a murderous beast.
I have been at a crossroads with all shark films for a good while now. While I am a huge shark conservation nut, I cannot help but recognize that Jaws is one of the best adventure thrillers and horror films ever made in film history, as well as being a personal favorite, well lodged in my Top Ten films of all time. Ever since I first saw it as a teenager (I did not quite see it in theatres on its original run, but did see a rerelease a few years later, though I had seen it on HBO by that point), it has been hugely influential on both my film watching habits and my psyche. When Jaws broke big in the mid-'70s -- both Peter Benchley's original novel and Steven Spielberg's film adaptation -- its wild popularity did a massive amount of damage to the reputation of the shark -- especially the great white shark. Jaws is well documented as having significantly increased the wholesale slaughter on the part of sharks worldwide starting in the mid-1970s, as well as furthering the already existent role of the shark in the public consciousness as a villainous monster. But you could counter with an argument that Jaws also made a lot of people, myself included, become fascinated as kids and teenagers with sharks to the point of distraction, even to the point of committing to their welfare for the rest of our lives. If Jaws had not been so hugely regarded, would we have popular annual events like, for better or for worse (because there are drawbacks here as well) Shark Week, where sharks as a group at least get a general better trial before the public than normal?
Artistically, the plus side of Jaws being such a popular film is that it has proven objectively impossible to create a shark film that equals it. You can look at a science fiction film like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and say, "Oh, yeah... but there's also Star Wars." And Alien, and Aliens, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner, and E.T., and many more science fiction films of rather equal merit, and so it goes in other genres and sub-genres. But where do you refer people who want a high quality, action-adventure shark movie after Jaws? Deep Blue Sea? Don't get me wrong... I love that film but not for reasons of quality. No, you usually have to switch the focus from sharks themselves over to animal attack films of relatively equal quality such as The Birds or jump straight to the pure horror genre to find another film. And even there, the quality is far overridden by the hack work (as it is in all genres, really). Jaws, while it did practically invent the summer blockbuster season, is still a rather singular film. Its popularity certainly ensured that it would have many, many imitators all trying to equal its success; its universally held measure of high quality also ensured that those imitators would never hit the same high water mark, either artistically or financially.
It now feels that filmmakers have just given up trying to make even a good shark-based film for the theatres (the recent news about Steve Alten's Meg finally getting made or the upcoming thriller, The Shallows, notwithstanding), and given my shredded psyche which builds fortresses on either side of this argument, this is both great and sad. Today, we hang out on video or tune into channels like Syfy and mostly get Sharktopus and his low-budget, poorly animated lot. (Again, another shark film that I think is entertaining on a purely juvenile level, and I think the drive behind creating such a film is hilarious). And suckers like me, because I am torn in my love to see sharks on film finally treated like the brilliant and diverse creatures that they are but also am addicted to monsters and horror films, tune in to these films time and again. I cannot stop. I am a lost cause, even when the addiction itself is, in the case of the bulk of films from Syfy and The Asylum, completely unworthy of my attention were I to approach them from a critical angle. I would prefer that someone put some genuine craft and attention into a shark film, but c'mon... stupid, crappy shark films are sheer fun. And everyone knows it.
But let's get to my reason for writing all of this today. About a decade ago, having already started The Cinema 4 Pylon (which would be my central site) and Cinema 4: Cel Bloc (where I could concentrate solely on animation), I was torn between which other film specialties I wanted to focus. The topic was certainly going to come out of the horror and science fiction genres, and for a while, I thought that in the fight between dinosaurs, robots, and sharks for my attention, that dinosaurs were certainly going to come out on top, there being far more films (and far more interesting films as well) available especially. But I veered toward the ocean instead and I started a blog called The Shark Film Office.
My first post on The Shark Film Office went up in February 2007 -- a review of a really bad Dedee Pfeiffer film called Blue Demon, featuring genetically enhanced great white sharks, that I nonetheless found fascinating for just how much it actually tried, in many scenes, to avoid the gore and violence one would normally associate with such a film. But I found out quickly, having no real guide as to how many shark films there were or what I should even consider to be a shark film, that it was hard to really pin down what I wanted from the subject. Was it more important to me to just review crappy shark films, one after the other, or to show just how deeply the image of the shark is embedded in the mind and history of man? Should I use the site to simply tee off on easy marks -- yes, fish in a barrel -- or should I take a broader approach to the subject, citing examples of films where sharks are used extensively in dialogue rather than in image, furthering the discussion by not just showing how mankind approaches members of their various species, but also how the creatures have colored our thoughts and our language throughout film history?
And so I went with the latter aspect. I could review Blue Demon and its low-rent ilk and thrill my teenage self to tears, but also write a piece about Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, an acknowledged cinematic masterpiece which quite surprisingly has a significant but unseen shark prescence at its core. Early on in the process through, I discovered that I didn't want to ignore the other creatures of the deep who play upon our idiotic fears as a species, and so I added a subtitle to The Shark Film Office that reads "Sharks, yes... but rays, squid, octopi and orcas, too..." This broke open enough extra ground for me that I was certain to never run out of films to tackle. But then something happened... I stopped trying to tackle those films altogether.
By the summer of 2008, I had only put up a handful of posts on The Shark Film Office. With my attention diverted in a major way by my actual job, my family, a general ennui, and a slowly boiling but steadily growing depressive spot in my soul and mind that would lead eventually to suicidal ideation, declaring myself 5150, and going through two years of meds and therapy, I stopped writing. I stopped writing on the Pylon, on the Cel Bloc, and especially on The Shark Film Office. Stopped cold in July of 2008. I never promoted The Shark Film Office, and I never really figured out my focus (the style changed constantly in those early posts; I couldn't even commit to how the information would be presented). In the back of my mind, I thought constantly that I really wanted to restart the site again and give it the full attention that this self-pronounced, shark-loving maniac could apply to it, but I never did. While I continued to post sporadically on the Pylon through 2011, it was very half-hearted. By the time the depression kicked in full force in 2012, I had stopped writing completely, except at my real writing and editing job.
Then last September happened. After a couple of years of my therapist telling me that I needed to start my personal writing again to get even close to being happy (he being a pretty sharp guy), I had made several attempts but they all fell far short of the goal for me. Finally, out of desperation (and already out of therapy), I decided to spend the day before my birthday writing for about nine hours straight. It was beyond therapeutic; it was redefining. I spent a similar amount of time on my birthday doing the same, this time hashing about ideas that I had always wanted to try when I was blogging full-time. I posted my first true regular post in ages on the Pylon on September 10th, and it became my new standard (same as the old standard) from there. Not only was the immediate reaction very pleasing -- it did help that my first post was a rant about a lack of decent gluten-free bread, a subject close to my heart... and stomach -- but its acceptance allowed me just enough push to keep going.
The Cinema 4 Pylon continued to rev back up throughout the month, and by October, it was back wholly to its original intent. Then came the biggest hurdle, restarting Cinema 4: Cel Bloc, with its more cohesive focus on a single subject and generally much longer articles. That one I hit really hard in November and got cruising along at a very pleasing pace for a few months. (Getting seriously ill in February and March did cause a setback on both sites, but now that I am better, we are starting to cruise again.) Somewhere in that flourish of writing and posting, I knocked out a couple of reviews for The Shark Film Office, one in November and one in mid-February, just as I was getting ill. All along, The Shark Film Office had been nagging at me: "Why don't you start me again? You love sharks; why aren't you writing about us?"
To be fair, I still didn't know how much I wanted to really commit to the project, but I had been doing something on the sidelines that was going to help me immeasurably. A while back, I had started keeping a database of films featuring, not just sharks, but every type of large aquatic sea creature (even some smaller ones) that are often called upon by the movie studios to do villainous work in film. This even included sea monsters of every fanciful variety, not just what we consider to be "natural" monsters. Putting this database together started the gears turning again, and helped me begin to figure out exactly what I wanted from The Shark Film Office (and even other angles for new features on The Cinema 4 Pylon, one of which -- The Monster's on the Loose!!! -- has already seen its first edition).
So I have decided to recommit to The Shark Film Office. I plan to feature regular reviews of films featuring sharks (and some of those other sea creatures I mentioned) over the rest of the year. I will be tackling narrative features for the most part, but I plan on including reviews of documentaries and television specials as much as possible too. I hope in time that the site will become a decent resource for anyone interested in the history of shark film (and television). For the time being, all new articles for The Shark Film Office will premiere here on The Cinema 4 Pylon initially, and will be archived at The Shark Film Office site as well, until I can start promoting that site on its own.
For the record, I am still torn on just how I can appease my two differing sides: the one that wants to show sharks for themselves, and the one that loves really stupid shark horror movies. Is there a happy medium? Can I cater to both sides of my sharky soul and not come out as split apart as a giant two-headed great white from a Syfy Channel movie? I figure that is part of the journey. If you are writing and don't seek to discover something new about yourself, then you are not really writing. I am hoping that you will dive into that deep end of the pool with me.