AHCU: The Overlooked Cinematic Universes of the Art House.
There's nothing like the MCU, ask any of your nerd friends. Ask any of your friends period, even the hippest fashionista's got a high five ready for the minds behind "Jessica Jones", no matter their feelings on the dubious evolution of the "Hulk" franchise.
In the wonderfully meta-theatric words of Paul Bettany's 'Vision' "In the eight years since Mr. Stark announced himself as Iron Man," we've come to accept the overwhelming box office potential that is macro arc storytelling.
Marvel's "Avengers" films and their spinoffs, sequels, prequels, and Netflix Specials being of course the most visible of them, the Universal Monster Universe is about to take wings with "The Mummy," and the recent "Kong: Skull Island" is filling out the empire state building sized foot steps of 2014's "Godzilla."
It's what we're all talking about, fans, studios, indie producers, domestic box office economists, everyone. As if, we'd never really thought any story could hold it's audience's attention for more than a well structured trilogy, with a few not exactly beloved exceptions emerging in the final decade of the 20th century. But, like so many dope ass things before this, the New Wave did it first.
Next week see's the start of a Jean-Pierre Léaud retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center that I personally couldn't be more pumped for. Though that may be obvious as Léaud is literally our profile pic. In the immortal, shared words, of Jean-Pierre and his surrogate father Francois Truffaut, "Antoine Doinel! Antoine Doinel! Antoine Doinel!"
If you've made it this far into the cinema think piece edges of the net you're probably at least a bit familiar with the "Adventures of Antoine Doinel." But, if somehow, that's not the case. Francois Truffaut told Antoine's story over the course of five films (four features and a short) spanning 1959-1979.
The Doinel pentalogy is one of the most discussed and beloved macro arcs in history. Well, parts of it at least. For Truffaut the Doinel franchise was a bit of a happy accident. His legendary debut "The 400 Blows" was the runaway hit of Cannes and the art house the year it came out and launched the 27 year old auteur (and the 14 year old Léaud) to international stardom. But it wasn't until three years later that Truffaut considered exploring Antoine's story further for his piece of the short film series "Love at 20."
"Antoine and Colette" is often considered a lesser work which, I just don't get. It's some of the most enjoyable, melancholy, and perfectly preserved examples of what it was to live and dream in Parisian youth culture of the 60's.
From that point on though it seems that both Truffaut and Léaud had realized there was much more time the world needed to spend with Doinel, leading to the first film in the intentional trilogy era of the pentalogy, "Stolen Kisses". Over the life of the series character's weave in and out, Léaud ages before our eyes, his world expands and contracts and holds you in your seat (almost) the whole time. Now Truffaut's arc, though the most well known and the most intricate, is relatively self contained, a few references to outside events or films, the common, incorrect sense that Léaud is reprising the role of Antoine in the occasional Godard piece, etc. The Doinel story is in most respects more a saga (ie Star Wars) than a CU like Marvel. Though with the recent "Rogue One", Star Wars is about to enter the universe business too.
And so we land, as you're wont to do if you're lucky, with the love story of Giulietta Masina and Federico Fellini.
"The Nights of Cabiria" is one of Fellini's most popular and lasting works, and to my mind the favorite. The story of a hooker wth a heart of overly trusting gold, it is one of Giulietta Masina's most beautiful creations. The inspiration behind the Broadway standard "Sweet Charity", 'Cabiria' is an art house classic. It's sister film in the Cabiria-verse, is not.
"The White Sheik" may actually deserve to be called a lesser work, but let's be kind and just say it was an early one. Fellini's first film is a honey moon gone wrong semi romantic comedy that centers around a sort of oriental impersonator. And in one scene, Cabiria appears to help the heroine out of a bind.
A one off supporting character that, when given life by the wonderfully ephemeral Masina, sparked the Maestro's imagination 5 years later to give Cabiria a night all her own. If the defining feature of a universe versus a series is interrelated events experienced by disparate protagonists, then perhaps the Cabiria-verse fits a little better than Doinel. However, the desire to tell macro stories is at the heart of both.
It may be hard to remember a time before Tony Stark crashed into our living rooms and Sam Jackson put together the dopest super friends playdate the world had ever seen, but we thought it was revolutionary, and in many ways it was. But for much of its history Hollywood shied away from anything nearing such an experiment, that's why it was such a surprise when it finally succeeded.
Conventional wisdom had deemed that a franchise was great, but that audience's couldn't be asked to keep any real number of ancillary characters or continuous plots in their hearts for years at a time. Now maybe it's the macro stories of television's new golden age that changed our minds, maybe we just got lucky, but clearly, macro story's are in Hollywood to stay (for now.)
What's frustrating is that they've always been a vital part of just about every other story form. From Shakespeare's Falstaff to pop songwriters to Jim Harrison's Northridge family, universe building has always been an instinct for many artists. World building's a bedrock skill, but universe building's what happens when you fall in love with a creation and just can't stop.
Film is, granted, not the simplest form to dive into and thus its makers are often a tad more bound by the taboo and prejudice of their investors than maybe the Nashville songwriter or Midwestern author. That of course, still didn't stop the 60's from going down, Truffaut made his films and Felinni ensured Cabiria saw the light of Roman nights, but who's to say that she wouldn't have reappeared. That La Dolce Vita's Papparazzo wouldn't have been covering Guido's failure in 8 1/2? We shouldn't have been surprised that the Avengers assembled, it is the nature of a good story to expand and deepen, it's what we want, it's how we like them.
Hollywood held it at bay for most of the 20th century, perhaps even held the potential of our imaginations hostage for the sake of predictable sales and the least risk. But the use of narrative universes have now funded the most successful studios in this age of increasing competition.
And sure, the tent pole bubble's probably gonna burst, how long can a good thing last? But that won't mean we'd have lost our love of super stories, macro arcs. Maybe the films will get smaller, the heros more everyday. But the minute a filmmaker decides, "you know what, that dude from our last picture, he's gonna stop by here too, just to say hi," I hope we let them, because it worked real damn well for the greats.
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