RIAN JOHNSON OPENS THE LOOP

looper

Image Credit: Alan Markfield

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1. AN UNASSUMING MAN

WE’RE AT COMIC-CON.

RIAN JOHNSON SITS AT THE CENTER OF A PRESS TABLE BEFORE THE THRONGS OF JOURNALISTS. JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT SITS TO HIS LEFT, EMILY BLUNT SITS TO HIS RIGHT. A JOURNALIST STANDS UP IN THE BACK AND PROCEEDS TO ASK MR. GORDON-LEVITT ABOUT HIS REMARKABLE YEAR, SPECIFICALLY ALL THE TOP FLIGHT DIRECTORS HE’S WORKED WITH. IT IS AT THIS MOMENT THAT JOE, WHO HAS SPEND MUCH OF THE CONFERENCE SMILING AND JOKING IN A RELAXED STATE, SUDDENLY SITS UP A STRAIGHT AND TAKES ON A TONE OF UTMOST SERIOUSNESS. HE SAYS:

“I do think that having a 2011 where I worked with Rian and Chris Nolan and Steven Spielberg, I couldn’t ask for a better year leading up to the year I directed for the first time. I do think those directors have a lot in common. I think Rian might be a little less known at this point, but I think they can all stand beside each other.”

WITHOUT MISSING A BEAT: RIAN JOHNSON SINKS DOWN IN HIS CHAIR, COMICALLY-YET-GENUINELY HIDING IN EMBARRASSMENT FROM THE SHEER MAGNITUDE OF THIS ASSOCIATION. THE ROOM LAUGHS, BUT IN THAT SINGULAR GESTURE IT ALL BECOMES SO CLEAR:

RIAN JOHNSON IS THE MOST UNASSUMING TOUR-DE-FORCE DIRECTOR ON THE PLANET.

WHEN MOST PEOPLE THINK ABOUT TOUR-DE-FORCE DIRECTORS THEY OFTEN PICTURE THEM WALKING AROUND ON SET, COMMANDING THE FIELD LIKE A BRAZEN GENERAL. OR PERHAPS THEY PICTURE THEM AS SOME SELF-POSSESSED MAESTRO, CONDUCTING AN ORCHESTRA WITH RECKLESS ABANDON. WHATEVER THE IMAGE, THE POINT IS THAT WE JUST ASSUME THEM TO BE THE KIND OF PEOPLE WHO PARADE THEIR AUDACITY, CHUTZPAH, AND PASSION AS IF IT WAS INGRAINED INTO THE VERY FIBER OF THEIR BEING. BUT THE TRUTH IS MOST OF THE GREAT FILMMAKERS ARE SIMPLY QUIET, THOUGHTFUL, AND KIND INDIVIDUALS. WHEN HULK USES THESE ADJECTIVES IT IS LIKELY THAT YOUR FIRST THOUGHTS DRIFT TOWARD A GUY LIKE STEVEN SPIELBERG, WHOSE WILD SUCCESSES ARE MOSTLY GARNERED FROM HIS SENSE OF CHILD-LIKE WONDER AND HUMANE DISPOSITION. BUT THE TRUTH IS EVEN A MASTER LIKE STANLY KUBRICK, WHO WAS RENOWNED FOR EXACTING AND SOMEWHAT-PRICKLY BEHAVIOR, WAS IN ACTUALITY MUCH MORE OF A QUIET TINKERER RATHER THE DEVILISH TYRANT SOME WOULD HAVE YOU BELIEVE.

THE REASON THAT HAVING A DEMURE DISPOSITION WORKS SO WELL IN THIS PROFESSION IS RELATIVELY SIMPLE: FILMMAKING IS THE ART OF CONSTRUCTING A VISION. ONLY IT IS A VISION THAT HAPPENS TO BE SOLELY LOCATED BETWEEN THE EARS OF THE PERSON DIRECTING IT. BUT IN ORDER TO BRING SAID VISION TO LIFE, A DIRECTOR NEEDS TO BE ABLE TO COMMUNICATE IT CLEARLY TO EVERY SINGLE PERSON THEY ARE WORKING WITH, WHILE STILL SOMEHOW GETTING THE BEST WORK OUT OF THEM TOO. SO WHEN LOOKING AT FILMMAKING IN THOSE STARK TERMS IT BECOMES PRETTY OBVIOUS THAT POSSESSING THE QUALITIES OF BEING QUIET, THOUGHTFUL, AND KIND WOULD BE A GOOD WAY OF ACTUALLY GOING ABOUT ALL THAT.

LUCKY FOR US, THEY DON’T COME MORE QUIET, THOUGHTFUL, AND KIND THAN RIAN JOHNSON.

LET’S ALSO BE UPFRONT ABOUT ONE THING: HULK THINKS RIAN’S MOVIES HAVE BEEN GREAT. THROW OUT ANY POSITIVE ADJECTIVE YOU LIKE. SMART, ENTERTAINING, INCISIVE, VISCERAL. CHANCES ARE HULK FEELS THIS WAY ABOUT THEM. BUT BEYOND THE WORK ITSELF, THERE IS ALWAYS THE CURIOSITY ABOUT THE PERSON BEHIND THE MOVIES. THE MIND THAT CRAFTS THE ART CAN SOMETIMES BE EVEN MORE COMPELLING.

FROM MERE OBSERVATION, ONE CAN TELL THAT RIAN IS TRULY AN UNASSUMING MAN. HE IS NOTICEABLY SOFT-SPOKEN, BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN HE IS AT A LOSS FOR WORDS. IN FACT, HE’S PERFECTLY ARTICULATE. HE DOES NOT RESPOND TO COMMENTS WITH REACTIONARY VIGOR, NOR DOES HE SPEND AN INORDINATE AMOUNT OF TIME COMING UP WITH CALCULATED RESPONSES. HE SIMPLY TOWS THAT IDEAL LINE BETWEEN CAREFULLY CHOOSING ONE’S WORDS AND AN ORGANIC RESPONSE. AND ALL THE WHILE HE’S JUST SO DAMN NICE ABOUT IT. HE GOES OUT OF HIS WAY TO THANK PEOPLE. HE HOLDS DOORS FOR YOU. FOR A PROFESSION WHERE YOU HAVE TO SPEND MOST OF THE DAY WORKING OUT A VISION THAT’S LOCKED IN YOUR OWN HEAD, HE IS SURPRISINGLY AWARE OF THE WORLD AROUND HIM. THERE SEEMS TO BE NO EVIDENCE OF SOLIPSISM HERE.

WHAT IS EVEN MORE TELLING IS THAT EVERYONE ELSE SEEMS TO COME TO THE SAME CONCLUSION. PERHAPS THERE IS SOME ACKNOWLEDGMENT TO THE FACT THAT HIS OVERWHELMING SWEETNESS IS IN NO WAY BETRAYED BY HIS BASIC PHYSIOLOGY. HULK OVERHEARD A PERSON MEETING HIM FOR THE FIRST TIME REMARK “Good golly, he’s adorable.” AND YUP, HE IS TOTALLY ADORABLE. AT FIRST, EVERYTHING ABOUT RIAN SEEMS TO BE GENTEEL. HIS PRESSED SMILE. THE WAY HE OFTEN SEEMS TO BE PEERING OVER HIS DELICATE, RECTANGLE FRAMES AS HE TALKS. THE NO-FUSS WAY HE MOVES ABOUT A ROOM. BUT IT WOULD ALSO BE MISTAKE TO THINK OF RIAN AS BEING “SHY.” LIKE ANYONE, THE MORE HE IS PLACED WITH COMFORTABLE SCENARIOS — FAMILY. FRIENDS. COLLABORATORS. FELLOW-PASSIONATE FILM LOVERS — THE MORE HE BECOMES HIS ROUNDED, HUMAN SELF. AND THE THE MORE PLAYFUL HE BECOMES. THE MORE HE PUTS THIS WONDERFUL, RAZOR-SHARP WIT. EVEN IN FRONT OF THE SWARM OF JOURNALISTS, CAMERAS, AND ADORING FANS THAT WILL SWARM HIM IN THE NEXT FEW HOURS, THAT COMFORT STAYS INTACT. HE IS SIMPLY A MAN MOST HIMSELF WHEN HE TALKS ABOUT THE THINGS HE ADORES.

LUCKY, FOR US THE MAIN THING HE LOVES IS CINEMA.

HULK IS ABOUT TO USE A PHRASE THAT SEEMS TO EVOKE ALL SORTS OF REACTIONS, BUT FOR HULK THE ONLY POSSIBLE REACTION IS A POSITIVE ONE. HULK WOULD SAY THAT RIAN JOHNSON IS “FILM SCHOOLY,” BUT IN THE BEST POSSIBLE WAY. IT’S NOT AN EASY THING TO ARTICULATE. IT’S NOT JUST THE WAY HE CAN NAVIGATE THE CRITERION COLLECTION WITH EASE, BUT LIKE ALL THINGS IT IS ABOUT HIS AFFECTATION. HE’S GENUINELY EXCITED TO SHARE IN THE DISCUSSION OF FILM. AND THAT WHOLLY INCLUDES THE ABILITY TO LISTEN, NOT SIMPLY TO ORATE ON IT. HE RECOMMENDS JARMUSCH’S DOWN BY LAW WITH SINCERITY, BUT HE DOESN’T MISS A BEAT WHEN HULK REFERENCES GIANNI DI VENANZO AND HIS COLLABORATION WITH FELLINI. BUT THE CONVERSATION NEVER ONCE FEELS LIKE A GAME. ANYONE WHO HAS BEEN IN THAT SCENARIO KNOWS WHAT HULK IS TALKING ABOUT. IT’S THE GAME OF WHAT DO YOU KNOW, REALLY? AND MOST FILM PEOPLE THANKFULLY PHASE IT OUT BY AGE 26. IN TRUTH, IT’S GAME HULK COULDN’T HOPE TO WIN ANYWAY. HE’LL PLAY COY AND RATTLE OF A LIST OF PEOPLE WHO COULD PUT HIM TO SHAME, BUT JOHNSON HAS THE KIND OF ENCYCLOPEDIA-LIKE KNOWLEDGE THAT WOULD ALLOW HIM TO RUN CIRCLES AROUND HULK. BUT LUCKILY, NEITHER OF US HAS ANY INTEREST IN EXPLORING SOME CINEMATIC TETE-E-TETE. IN FACT, IT’S THE FURTHEST THING FROM HIS MIND. MORE THAN ANYTHING JOHNSON DELIGHTS IN THE JOY OF TALKING ABOUT IDEAS.

HULK WOULD LIKE TO TRY AND CONVINCE YOU THAT ALL OF THIS MATTERS.

IN FACT, HULK WOULD ARGUE THAT JOHNSON’S SENSE OF CINEMATIC HISTORY AND HIS CARE FOR THE IMPORTANCE OF THEME MATTER MORE THAN EVER NOWADAYS. WHEN HULK LOOKS AT THE LANDSCAPE OF UPCOMING FILMMAKERS THEY SEEM TO BE GLOWING ABOUT THE ADMIRABLE LIKES OF CAMERON, CARPENTER, JACKSON, AND EVEN MICHAEL BAY. HULK JUST LIKES THE WORLD BEYOND THOSE GUYS TOO. WHILE JOHNSON’S WORK CERTAINLY POSSESSES THE SAME LEVEL OF ENERGY AS THOSE FAMOUS HIGH-OCTANE FILMMAKERS, HULK WOULD ARGUE THAT HE IS MILES AHEAD WHEN IT COMES TO CARE, TACT, AND MESSAGE. AND THAT’S BECAUSE AMIDST ALL THAT PROPULSION, THERE IS A REAL CARE FOR THE FORMAL AND DIRECT AESTHETIC. WHEN HULK LOOKS AT JOHNSON’S WORK HULK SEES THE CONSTANT INFLUENCE OF FILMMAKERS LIKE RENOIR AND BRESSON, WHO WERE UTTER MASTERS OF FRAMING A SHOT FOR THE UTMOST TENSION, EXAGGERATING COMPOSITION FOR DRAMATIC EFFECT, AND EMPHASIZING THE VISCERAL EXPERIENCE OVER THE DETACHED ONE. THIS BECOMES CLEAR AS YOU LISTEN TO JOHNSON TALK ABOUT THE THRILL OF GETTING THE PROPER CLOSE-UP EXACTLY RIGHT:

“You don’t know it prematurely, it takes trial and error. But you sure know it when you see it and that’s better than anything, really. I feel like a perfect close-up can sometimes save entire movies.”

THIS IS THE KIND OF STATEMENT THAT MAKES OTHER FILMMAKERS SWOON. IT SHOWCASES UNDERSTANDING AND CARE FOR THE MOST BASIC TRUTH OF CINEMA. NO CAMERA MOVE IS MORE POWERFUL THAN SUBJECT’S FACE. IT’S WHY RIAN CAN MAKE THESE PROPULSIVE, FAST-PACED, COOL MOVIES BUT NEVER ONCE BE MISTAKEN FOR BEING “COLD.” HE RESPECTS THE POWER OF EMOTION AND THE THRILL OF THE CLOSE-UP TOO MUCH. THERE IS THIS INEXORABLE BEATING HEART THAT SHOWS IN HIS WORK.

NOW, HULK HAS GONE ON AND ON HERE IN GLOWING TERMS AND IF YOU WERE TO TELL ANY OF THIS TO RIAN JOHNSON’S FACE HE WOULD LIKELY TURN BRIGHT RED, REFLEXIVELY SHRUG, AND USHER UP A HUMBLE/HURRIED THANK YOU BEFORE RETURNING THE NICEST COMPLIMENT YOU’VE EVER HEARD. THIS IS NOT SOME ALLERGIC RESPONSE TO PRAISE, BUT INSTEAD AN HONEST DISPLAY BASIC DECENCY. HE IS, AFTER ALL, AN UNASSUMING MAN. BUT REALLY THAT’S JUST MORE OF A REASON FOR HULK TO COME OUT AND SAY ALL THIS. BECAUSE IT’S EARNED. BECAUSE IT’S REAL. BECAUSE HOLLYWOOD IS A BUSINESS WHERE PEOPLE CAN GET COMPLIMENTED TO DEATH IN THE FACE-TO-FACE ARENA AND THUS TO STILL HAVE THOSE BASIC, HUMANE QUALITIES TO SOMETHING SO HUGE IS ACTUALLY IMPORTANT. SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE BEEN CONDITIONED BY YEARS OF BEING COMPLIMENTED THAT TO SOME OF THEM IT JUST BECOMES NUMB… ESPECIALLY WHEN A LOT OF THOSE PEOPLE DON’T ACTUALLY MEAN IT. AND SO IT IS THIS HULK’S OPINION THAT JOHNSON DOES POSSESS ALL THOSE UNIQUE, SUPERLATIVE QUALITIES. IT IS THE REASON HULK WANTED TO WRITE THIS COLUMN. IT IS THE REASON HULK GOES ON AT LENGTH ABOUT ALL THIS.

HULK BELIEVES THAT RIAN JOHNSON MATTERS.

AND AS HE STANDS BEFORE COMIC-CON IN FRONT OF A MASSIVE CROWD AT HALL H, HE IS HERE FOR ONE PURPOSE: TO UNFURL HIS LATEST FILM LOOPER ON AN UNSUSPECTING PUBLIC.

AND BOY ARE YOU IN FOR SOMETHING SPECIAL.

2. ON JUST WHAT THE HECK THIS COLUMN IS ABOUT

WHEN HULK WAS FIRST ASKED BY ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY TO COVER COMIC-CON FOR THEM, THE VERY FIRST IDEA HULK HAD WAS TO DO A BIT OF “EMBEDDED REPORTING.” HULK USES QUOTES THERE BECAUSE HULK IS NOT, NOR HAS EVER BEEN, A JOURNALIST. HULK IS JUST SOME HULK WHO WRITES GIANT ESSAYS ON CINEMA AND LUCKED INTO THIS PARTICULAR SITUATION. HECK, PART OF THE REASON IT EVEN HAPPENED WAS BECAUSE HULK HAS NEVER BEEN A JOURNALIST BEFORE AND IT ALLOWED FOR SOME OUTSIDER-AS-INSIDER APPROACH TO ALL THIS AND THAT IS PRECISELY WHAT HULK HOPES TO ACHIEVE. BUT SINCE HULK RESPECTS THE PROFESSION MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD (SAVE TEACHING), PLEASE CONSIDER THIS AN ATTEMPT TO DO IT JUSTICE… JUST IN A REALLY WEIRD WAY.

SO THIS WAS THE SPECIFIC GOAL OF SAID “EMBEDDED REPORTING”: TO FOLLOW AROUND A FEW HIGH-PROFILE MOVIE FOLKS AS THEY DO THEIR WHOLE HALL H/COMIC-CON THING AND TRY TO PUT IT IN SOME INTERESTING CONTEXT. AND LUCKILY FOR ALL OF US, HULK’S NUMBER ONE CHOICE SAID YES. SO FOR TWO DAYS HULK FOLLOWED AROUND RIAN JOHNSON AND THE LOOPER GANG AS THEY HAD THEIR OWN UNIQUE EXPERIENCE AT THE CON, MANY OF THEM FOR THE FIRST TIME. WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN OUT-OF-ORDER, HIGHLY-DETAILED ACCOUNT OF THOSE TWO DAYS, IN WHICH HULK TRIES EXPOSE THE COMIC-CON EXPERIENCE FROM THE FILMMAKER’S SIDE, BUT ALSO TAKES A FEW TANGENTIAL MOMENTS HERE AND THERE TO PROVIDE CONTEXT WITH SOME SPRAWLING HULK-STYLE ESSAYS ABOUT THE LOOPER GANG’S WORK, LIVES, GENERAL AFFECTION, AND EVEN SOME ESSAYS ON THE STATE OF THE INDUSTRY ITSELF.

IT’S ALSO 27,000 WORDS… SO… YEAH… GRAB A BAGEL OR SOMETHING?

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