Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Recent Commercial Cinema

In the 1982 Milius Conan the Barbarian, Schwarzenegger's musclebound bumbling hero exhibits patience and guile to exact a measure of revenge (the slaughter of his family & his village), only to find - the film suggests at the end - more emptiness and unhappiness.  In the 2011 Conan the Barbarian, Jason Momoa is ostensibly just born a badass.  He doesn't struggle much.  When there is a job to be done he simply knows how to go about it - doesn't appear to need money or time or help (except when his sidekick, a wise and loyal black man who speaks in aphorisms [of course!], comes to his aid unbidden).  Once Conan embarks on his quest to avenge his father (and unlike the earlier film, his mother is not a figure to be avenged) by killing the murderers, the path to the climax is quick and direct.  Easy victory after easy victory, punctuated by one or two narrow escapes amidst impossible odds.  Deus ex machina after deus ex machina.  Sword slashes that would gruesomely kill a man don't even draw blood on him.  We know he's formidable, and the film shows us he's formidable, solely because the narrative seems to require it.  This Conan can catapult a henchman into the roof of his enemy's fortress, even "aiming" so superbly as to target the bedroom of the main villain.  It could all be quite entertaining if only the movie had the proper infusion of wit & levity, and the right kind of self-awareness.  (This is what Van Helsing attempted and failed at, and what perhaps Jonathan Rosenbaum saw in the 1997 Kull the Conqeuror, which I've never watched myself.)   Instead ... well, John Milius, the paleoconservative, in 1982 slyly provides an extremely troubling and almost nihilistic view of patriarchy, religion, and vengeance in his early film (almost against his own professed politics) - which is why the first Conan the Barbarian is some kind of pulp masterpiece.  But this new product is just the re-entrenchment, and reification, of the subject's mastery over the (othered) world around him.

The early Conan the Barbarian fascinates me, as a movie, partly because of its ambiguity with respect to the supernatural - this new one just kowtows toward the supernatural, and it positions its heroic subject as the rightful steward of all this supernatural power, all this prophecy and all these vaunted bloodlines.  Whereas the authority of patriarchy is subtly and perhaps unintentionally exposed as myth in '82, it's reinscribed as gospel in '11.  Or, to put it another way - in Milius' Conan, the "riddle of steel" involves the recognition that there are no gods, no existential certainties, no homelands, no authorities but those established, contingently, through force.  In Nispel's Conan, "understanding the sword" means you do a lot of cool shit until people respect your authoriteh.

Sociocultural notes - the new Conan also features non-white ethnic figures as its first raiders to the Cimmerian village.  (In Milius' film, the counterpart invaders approximate Picts.)  This just goes along with The Lord of the Rings and 300, movies that figure an external social threat by ridiculously blunt markers of nonwhite otherness.  Furthermore, Schwarzenegger's Conan finds his (sad) romantic interest in a fellow professional, a strong and mature woman, the excellent Sandahl Bergman.  This Conan finds his (hopeful) romantic interest in a "pureblood," a young lillywhite nun - i.e., very similar to the ultra-femme character whose advances Conan declines in the 1984 sequel (helmed by Richard Fleischer).  Of course, she's a "strong female character" - in neoliberal 2011 spectacle terms - because she's a little bit snarky and stubborn and haughty and says things like "I take instruction from no man" with the stilted, 20% faux-British accent of contemporary fantasy/historical movies.  She also appears handy with a blade despite no apparent training.  Conan is a "barbarian" because he likes to drink alcohol and kill bad guys and he talks about possessing women - just like an image of the abundantly heteronormative dudes that comprise this movie's market.  His personal journey entails only the acceptance that his pureblood nun girlfriend is tough too - i.e., that women can be tough like him. 

But by framing things this way, the producers of this film, and the cultural shorthand upon which they draw, simply couldn't be sexist, could they?  Could they?

The problem is not the use of appealing female love interests, or even of white heroes and eurocentric iconography per se.  It is rather a matter of what representational strategies are employed and what assumptions these strategies call upon.  So why does a pulp fantasy movie about brawns & revenge, made by an NRA figurehead, during the Reagan years, seem so, so much more radically uncertain about its genre rhetoric (i.e., the value of heroism, love, destiny, authority, etc.) than this 2011 piece of junk?

Similarly, Super 8 is a rather incredible pastiche of late '70s, early '80s Spielbergiana.  The messy boys' rooms exhibit some of the year's finest production design, and the cast of children proves excellent.  (Or maybe by "excellent" what I only mean - if I'm honest - is that they are appealing in a way consonant with the commercial movies of my childhood, rather than the cloying, irritating, wiser-than-thou moppets of present-day cinema.)  But what motivates this movie?  Absent parents & bourgeois "creative class" aspirations.  And while I doubt the J.J. Abrams & Co. want Super 8's viewers to extrapolate practical lessons from the film, one could conclude: "In the face of an evil alien threat [punned connotations possibly intended], all you've got to be open-minded and empathetic, and presumably also a creative type, like a rich Hollywood liberal Democrat perhaps ... and then the destructive, evil alien threat won't kill you."  But, again, it's worth calling into question the shallowness of the monster-movie representational strategies Super 8 uses alongside its skin-deep X-Files-ish anti-fed politics.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is competent in a depressing way: it underwhelms because it doesn't appear disproportionately awful in any one respect, even though none of it adds up to much.  Its premise and outcome are bleak but formulaic, thus robbed of much force.  I haven't looked into any information about sequels, but I imagine the expected sequel will see heart-of-gold chimp Caesar overthrown by the ugly, mottled chimp - a representational strategy, again, that approximates if not duplicates the visual rhetoric of ethnic otherness.  (This is why largely unheralded works like Dante's Small Soldiers or the Spierigs' Daybreakers, whether they're excellent films or something much less, are still intriguing and encouraging in their representational politics.  They trouble distinctions of "ugly [ethnic/monstrous] them" and "beautiful [white] us.")

J. Edgar, like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, neither excels nor fails in any outlying way - though it's a better film.  While not top drawer Eastwood, and full of problems the way that post-Blood Work Eastwood often is, it's the sort of movie I wouldn't mind seeing just a little more of, simply because it approaches things with a measure of seriousness, compassion, and equal parts discretion and curiosity.  When it comes to how to treat the movie, David Ehrenstein has already said it well enough.

Monte Carlo isn't so great, but it's not so bad either - see this review by Ben Sachs.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Stray Thoughts

"Well, to me it's two very different things [film and literature] … I mean there are principles that you can take from one and apply to the other but—no, I really make an effort not to see movies on literary terms, with plots and characters centrally… I try to see them as sound and image, essentially." (Dave Kehr)

Reading this interview with DK from a short while back, I was struck by the above, succinct sentiment.  I've voiced a similar sentiment before, as have a great many cinephiles with a more formalist (and often auteurist) bent.  I don't often make statements like this these days, but at the same time, in the proper circumstances all it takes is someone's snide dismissal of all experimental cinema, or of certain Robert Mulligan films (to name one name) for me to flip on the "sound and image" switch.  Still, there is a massive weakness to this defense and it's strange how formalists seem nevertheless willingly to overlook it despite predicating their taste and connoisseurship on attention to the materials of the medium.  "Plot and character" are simply not parallel, not congruous, not comparable, with "sound and image."  You can attend to one at the privilege of the other; certainly this is the level at which a lot of formalist cinephilia pitches itself polemically.  But 'sound and image' are for cinema what characteristics like words, sentence, diction, or grammar are for the written word.  Concepts like plot and character require perception but also comprehension.  Plot and character are not "uncinematic," nor are they "anti-cinematic," nor are they "cinematic."    The means of narration and emplotment certainly vary from the moving image to the written word, just as they vary from film to film, type to type.  But if they're there ...  Formalist cinephilia can rail against very real crutches & impediments to understanding, but can rely upon its own crutches if the viewer isn't careful, and takes on dogma like a security blanket.  (This last isn't a coded accustation of Kehr or anyone in particular, by the way - that interview was the springboard, it's not a target.)

I've had various kinds of reactions to "mumblecore" movies (does this label mean anything anymore?) ... but I've yet to see one that doesn't cause me to wonder, "Who are these people?"

The first section of The Nun's Story crossed with Times Square would equal something not unlike Ida Lupino's The Trouble with Angels.

And if you look at The Trouble with Angels, it's refreshing to see how rough-edged commercial cinema once allowed youths to be - blemished skin, seemingly unrehearsed body movements.  One can't imagine a hair going astray on the head of Hugo's Asa Butterfield.