It is a questionable practice to call a particular artist “the voice of his generation.” Every generation has many divergent trends, and to describe any artist as its ‘voice’ is to tacitly sweep aside any contrary voices. But on the other hand, it is true that you do sometimes have an artist come along who seems to perfectly embody a major trend of the current moment, and then it really does become fair to grant him that title in a sense.
And I say that Rian Johnson is the voice of his generation. Though to be honest, I don’t know whether that should be considered more of an insult to him or the generation.
(There will be SPOILERS for several of his films, but since they’re all so terrible I don’t think that matters much).
As with many current trends, I have to wonder what future generations will make of the career of Rian Johnson. He could be described as ‘if Ed Wood were granted multi-million-dollar budgets and fawning media adulation,’ except that’s not really fair. I suspect that, given the same resources, Wood would have made better films than Johnson. Certainly Bride of the Monster is a hundred times more entertaining, as well as being better structured, than The Last Jedi.
Some of you may balk at that description, but it’s true. Johnson’s scripts are black holes of stupidity from which light itself cannot escape (literally; one of his crowning achievements in idiotic writing involved messing with lightspeed). It would actually be a useful exercise for any aspiring writers to watch one of his movies and try to find all the plot holes, contrivances, inconsistencies, and so on that you can. You could get a tidy little “things to avoid” book in short order.
Now, since this essay is limited to a couple thousand words instead of pages, I can’t give an adequate summary of all his writing incompetencies. But, to give a single example…
In Glass Onion, Edward Norton’s billionaire tech-company CEO is established as not carrying a phone, but rather having fax machines set up at fixed locations around the world, all continually printing out his messages because he ‘likes analogue’. This is, as far as I could tell, solely to allow the main characters to discover an important piece of evidence at one point from the basket of messages continually printing out in his gym.
I’m not even talking about how utterly moronic it is to have a modern-day executive operating on a system like this (so, all his sensitive insider information is just printing out in multiple copies all around the world non-stop for anyone to find?). I’m more talking about how forcing a convoluted and absurd setup like this in order to facilitate one or two specific plot points is an extremely basic writing mistake; the kind of thing you’d expect a beginner to learn to avoid.
A few more lessons you might glean from his films include:
-Don’t have the same character give two pieces of contradictory exposition within minutes of each other.
-Don’t have the bulk of the film driven by the fact that a character withholds crucial information for no reason whatsoever.
-Don’t completely neglect logistics to the point where a character can travel to multiple locations by car over the course of several scenes well within what is later shown to be a hard ten-minute deadline after poisoning someone.
-Don’t deliberately have extended plot lines turn out to be completely pointless just to say you did.
Bad Writer, But the Voice of His Generation?
But amazingly incompetent writers are a dime-a-dozen in Hollywood these days (see also Zack Snyder). It takes more than that to be crowned the voice of a generation. He who would aspire to such a title must also embody the most noteworthy traits of the current culture in his works.
He must, for instance, affect sophistication while betraying woeful ignorance of the subject matter. The Knives Out films, for instance, are billed as reinventions and twists on the classic whodunit, when in fact they’re just extremely standard and poorly done examples of it. The major tweaks to the formula – things like having the most obvious suspect actually be the killer, or having a seemingly convoluted and intricate plot resolve into something thoroughly simple, or apparently revealing the solution early on only to turn it around in the end – have all been done before, often, and by people who actually knew what they were doing. These aren’t bold and subversive new takes, they’re tropes that were employed by the most famous names in the genre during its heyday, and not even particularly noteworthy ones at that—nothing remotely as daring as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance. Something that anyone who was actually well-versed in the genre ought to be aware of.
In this and elsewhere, Johnson conveys a sense of blind self-satisfaction. Famously, he once said that he’d never heard what he considered a ‘legitimate’ criticism of The Last Jedi. Either no one ever said to him, “You digitally removed a dagger from a bad-guy’s hand mid-shot because you apparently didn’t notice the choreography had the heroine being gutted until post-production,” or he has an extremely refined definition of ‘legitimate criticism.’
Coupled with this is an utter lack of humanity or nuance towards his own characters; ‘good’ people are presented as perfectly moral, righteous, and admirable (even when their actions testify them to be otherwise, e.g. “you’re such a good nurse that you didn’t bother to check the labels of the medicine you were injecting into your patient”). While ‘bad’ people are presented as stupid, crass, immoral, and pathetic.
The protagonist of Glass Onion – that is, the one we the audience are supposed to agree with – even tells the murder victim’s sobbing girlfriend that he was a bad person who deserved to die. Because that’s the sort of thing good people say in the face of sudden, violent deaths. Even when they don’t go that far, his films harp quite a lot on the theme of “aren’t rich people in unearned positions of power so horrible?”
Whatever he knows about onions, I don’t think Johnson’s heard the one about glass houses.
Yes, the Voice of His Generation
All this should sound familiar; the shiny exterior, the assumed sophistication really built on hubris and ignorance, the crass contempt for those who are on the other side of the political divide, the blind self-satisfaction in the face of jaw-dropping failure.
But there’s one scene that really encapsulates it all, and which made me want to write this piece; the scene that to me truly solidifies Rian Johnson as the voice of his generation.
At the end of Glass Onion protagonist realizes that – mostly thanks to her own stupidity – she does not have the evidence to convict Edward Norton (it’s really not a spoiler to say the killer is the rich white guy played by the biggest name in the cast, is it?). As it happens, Norton has rented the real Mona Lisa from the French government so he could hang it in his living room, as one does. So, as an alternative means of punishing him, she burns the Mona Lisa in order to frame him for it.
Yes, you read that right and it’s not an exaggeration—actually, it sounds less insane than what happens in the film, since I skipped the part where she blows up the house with herself and everyone else inside it and no one gets a scratch. The protagonist incinerates one of the great art treasures of the human race in order to punish this one guy. This is portrayed by the film as a good thing.
Because to hell with cultural heritage, to hell with great achievements or world-renowned beauty, to hell with historical importance, to hell with questions of ownership, and to hell with future generations. This one person wants to get back at this one other person, and that counts for more than anything. Because morality means that the right people get what they want.
(Think how much easier Columbo’s job would have been if, instead of having to get evidence to trap Robert Culp, he simply bombed an art gallery and framed him for it. That would have been a very different show.)
And that really encompasses a large part of the current generation, doesn’t it? Contemptuously immolating our heritage in order to satisfy our personal grievances and stoke our own egos. Iconoclasts gleefully tearing down work that we would be utterly incapable of achieving in order to replace it with our own finger-paints. With all that’s been done over the past couple years in film, art, politics, and religion, is there any better image for us?
As I say, I have to wonder how our descendants will view us, the Rian Johnson generation. Our best hope is that they’ll be more merciful and kind to us than we are being to them.
Photo Credit- myjjswbg.youramys. com