I like movies, so of course I won’t be going a whole year without attending the cinema from time to time. Right now, and until I master the language this will continue to be the case, there are three kinds of movies I get to see in Germany: 1) German movies. 2) American movies dubbed in German. 3) American movies on DVD that I have NEVER heard of before. These can be seen in German OR English, but in either case I understand what’s going on about the same, which is to say, not much at all. There are certainly plenty of American films on DVD that I have heard of, but I am currently only watching those in German, hoping that I can learn the language the same way I have (apparently) learned every single word to every episode of Friends…relentless repetition.
So…watching movies without fully grasping the language in which they are spoken…it is a fascinating experience. It’s not that you don’t understand what’s going on. Unless you just completely lack any sense of human interaction or story telling, you get the broad strokes just fine. If anything, you just rely on the visuals a lot more than you normally would, and that is what makes the whole thing so interesting. I think it’s what happens when you break the rules of a given medium. When you experience something in a way in which it was not intended…it’s not quite as good, but it is completely interesting in very unintended ways.
Film is both a visual and audio medium, so stripping away any part of what you are hearing or seeing completely changes the experience of it, and I find those unintended experiences worth reflecting on. The closest thing I can relate it to is if you ever watch old footage of classic radio shows being recorded. These pop up from time to time on special documentaries and DVDs and such. What was previously a spoken word performance being illustrated by your mind is now being illustrated for you. There’s actually a really interesting example of this right now with the Ricky Gervais Show. Originally it was a podcast, but now they have animated episodes of the podcast and put it on HBO. The podcast is one of my favorite things to listen to, as I find it endlessly amusing; but the little clips I’ve seen of the show…I don’t know, it’s somehow not as good as just listening to it. Like listening to a book on CD; you get the same story, word for word, but hearing the words rather than reading them yourself…you digest them differently, plot points and details land differently, you are essentially interpreting someone else’s interpretation of the text. It’s simultaneously informative and…terribly off-putting.
So, the first movie I went and saw in the theater, what is sure to be an instant classic in both America and Germany, enjoyed by people of all ages for years to come :
(I would say something like “spoiler alerts ahead” or something, but the truth is…I am literally just going to tell you exactly what I saw. So it’s all spoilers. Be warned!) The Expendables are an international group of gun-toting, muscle-flexing, action seeking lunatics who are, seemingly, the people you hire when you want to overthrow third world dictatorships. Right away, right out the gate, there’s trouble for the Expendables…from within! Dolph Lundgren almost ruins a big mission by getting too trigger-happy, and his arch-nemesis Jet Li has to stop him. So they handcuff him and fly him back on their personal cargo plane (which I think was stolen right out of Tail Spin), but, inexplicably, they let him go mid-flight and then when they land he is off the team. This opening sequence teaches us the biggest thing about being an “Expendable”: Everything is always OK. Betray the team, or don’t; go overthrow a government, or not; violence is a last resort…or the best option; try to get out of a fight unscathed…or with several concussions and bullet wounds; everything is always OK. That is why this is a fun movie.
So then, the leader of the Expendables is called to a small church where a bald guy and the Governor of California talk about who will take the next job, which is, apparently, destroying a castle in a Central American country. The Governor washes his hands of this whole thing and says that the Expendables should go. So two Expendables go, they sneak in with fake IDs and they meet up with their contact: the daughter of the evil dictator. They take pictures, and they look around, presumably to see how big this castle is. They are discovered, but it’s ok, because they have their fake papers, and they can talk their way out of the situation. Tensions are running high, but cooler heads will prevail–OH WAIT JASON STATHAM THROWS KNIVES IN PEOPLE’S FACES! All of a sudden, the Expendables are in the Matrix, it doesn’t matter who they kill because everyone is just An Agent-in-waiting. And they escape by the skin of their teeth….and then they fly back just to kill some more people and blow up the dock!
The leader of the Expendables had told the daughter to come with them as they were escaping, but she chose to stay behind. This confuses the leader, presumably because she didn’t appear to have any weapons on her. Why would you choose to go somewhere without weapons? So then…they get back to America and they decide, “We are not blowing up that castle! That is so not happening!” And then some people shoot at them, including ousted member Dolph Lundgren(!), and there’s a car chase, and after they shoot Dolph Lundgren in the chest and kill everybody else, they decide, “OK, nevermind, let’s go blow up that castle!” And that is exactly what they do! Expendables: Assemble! So they secretly plant explosive devices all around the castle, and it’s kind of like a Dave Matthews Band concert, everyone sings their special song–martial arts, knife throwing, wrestling, semi-automatic shooting–and it all blends together into a magnificent tapestry of beautiful violence. So then…they decide it’s not enough to blow up the castle, they must kill everybody who works there! And they do. And they blow up the castle! Hooray! And, I guess it was happily ever after because that’s all it takes to eliminate an evil dictator and hand control of the country back to the people….blow up the castle. Right? So the Expendables go home and celebrate a job well done (with Dolph Lundgren who is back on the team again! AND not dead!) the way anyone would, with a fun night of drinking and throwing knives at the wall.
Overall, the movie does exactly what everyone in the world was hoping it would do, remind us what it was like to watch movies in the 1980s, when all violence was good, you didn’t have to worry about morals or ethics, plots were not complicated, you cut to the action as quick as possible and don’t waste time with talking, you’re seven years old, and adventure is its own reward. And it’s interesting how they deliberately left out pretty much every action movie motif that has come into fashion since 1990. For instance, there was no le parkour scene, which is fairly ubiquitous in action films since Casino Royale. There was no bullet time or Matrix-y scene, no high tech 21st Century-type weaponry, and no concern about real world consequences for their actions. Big shoot out car chases go on without a single police siren in the background; Jason Statham lays waste to an entire basketball court of losers and no one seems to think that’s cause for concern. It’s actually exactly the movie I would have written in 2nd grade; simple, not burdened by bigger concerns like ethics, or continuity, or…physics. It lives up to its name in every single sense, everything about it is totally and utterly expendable. And it reminded me that the 90 minutes I spent watching it was completely expendable, my time to waste. It was a nice little break from the weighty, complex, real world in which I am, sadly, not allowed to have the mentality of a second grader. And it made me glad to return to that world. It made me glad to not be expendable.
It’s possible that if I had understood the dialogue, this would turn out to be a much more philosophical, deeply challenging film. But then…that’s not really possible at all, is it?