Tragically Mainstream

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Category: Movies

Cancelling the Apocalypse: Why Pacific Rim would be better as a TV show

by Henry Gorman

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Don’t let the title give you the wrong idea.  I loved Pacific Rim.  It’s a simple film, but, to borrow words from Terry Pratchett, it’s simple in the way that a sword is simple or an ambush is simple. Read the rest of this entry »

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Marriage Equality Week Special: Shelter

by Henry Gorman

This Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling were victories, if only small ones, in the major ongoing civil rights campaign of our time.  But another battle– the fight to bring representation of gay and lesbian relationships to the media– has continued to stall.  Although TV has made huge strides since Will and Grace, many gay characters today remain peripheral sidekicks and simpering stereotypes.   Also, television shows and movies are still reluctant to show gay characters being affectionate with one another and often seem to feel a need to “punish” them with tragic deaths.  Even good works often fall into this trap.

 

"I wish I knew how to quit you, heteronormative narrative tropes"

“I wish I knew how to quit you, heteronormative narrative tropes”

Read the rest of this entry »

Man of Steel, Urban Destruction, and Zach Snyder’s Homeric Filmmaking

by Henry Gorman

Man of Steel has a magnificent superhero film pedigree. Its story springs from the mind of Christopher Nolan. Its script flows from the pen of David S. Goyer, who helped Nolan write The Dark Knight.  Zach Snyder, whose Watchmen and 300 won the acclaim of the viewing public and Hollywood’s younger and bolder critics, directs. This film should have been a marvel.

No, not that kind of Marvel!

No, not that kind of Marvel!

A trip to Rotten Tomatoes suggests otherwise. Man of Steel hovers around 55%, well below forgettable-but-shiny fluff like Star Trek: Into Darkness, blowing-its-chances-to-be-bold-and-meaningful Iron Man 3, and Christopher Nolan’s adventurously literary yet deeply flawed The Dark Knight Rises. The critics who do sing its praises issue them quietly, or with qualifications.  This film failed. Read the rest of this entry »

Sound and (no Nick) Fury– Why Iron Man 3 is a Disappointment

by Henry Gorman

Spoilers ahoy!

Okay, first things first.

There’s a pretty good chance that you liked Iron Man 3. And you probably liked it for some good reasons. Robert Downey Jr. is still funny and charming. Gwyneth Paltrow is an assertive, capable, fully-characterized Pepper Potts. The twist revealing that Ben Kingsley’s Baptist-preacher-speaking Mandarin is just a hoax and his subsequent performance as a coked-out former stage actor are hilarious. The mandatory big superhero spectacle moments– especially Iron Man’s rescue of 13 people tumbling from Air Force 1 and the final battle at the end featuring all the suits– came off beautifully. The film’s soundtrack team hilariously and effectively called us back to 1999 at the very start. And the film offered us an excellent movie child being adorable and calling on the protagonist’s inherent morality and doing all the other stuff that movie children are supposed to do. (Yes, I know it’s fashionable to hate on movie children. But you know who else loves tossing kids into movies? Stephen. Fucking. Spielberg.)

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BOOM, LINCOLN (Spielberg and Kushner were robbed here. Fucking robbed)

But I suspect that you might have walked away from the theatre thinking that something was missing. Iron Man 3 clearly failed to fall among the best of superhero films. It never achieves The Dark Knight‘s epic, portentous thematic sweep, or the flawed but wonderful X-Men First Class‘s touching human drama or the criminally underrated The Amazing Spider-Man‘s resonance. It fails to provide even the meaty satisfaction of simple-but-solid summer blockbusters like The Avengers, Thor, or even the first Iron Man. And this is true even though many of its individual elements (acting, scene-to-scene direction, humor, spectacle) are as good as or better than those of many of those films.

So, what went wrong? Well, the film had a big chance to be about something that mattered. And it blew it. What’s up? Politics.

So, the Iron Man franchise has pretty much always been about a dude who runs a weapons-making company and then gets all upset about the consequences when he finds out that the weapons are falling into the hands of bad dudes and being used to kill innocent people. So instead, he takes the most powerful weapon of all, uses it to lay the smackdown on the people who misuse his weapons, and refuses to share it with anybody but the US government and a nebulous scary-powerful secret security organization. Which still leaves him a dude who uses his enormous wealth to put himself beyond the reach of international law and uses technology beyond the reach of everyone else to kill and injure people with impunity. He might be a morally superior dude, and the people he hunts down might usually be bad, but there’s still something kind of uncomfortable and problematic about this. In some ways, Tony Stark is a metaphor for some of the grayer aspects of US power. He’s threatened by people his firm helped to arm (just as the US was attacked by the henchmen of Osama bin Laden, who it had trained to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan), and in order to secure himself and the people he cares about, he sets himself above any authority and uses novel technology to hunt down and destroy threats (drone strikes).

The first two movies were pretty popcorny, and of course, failed to use this to do anything meaningful. But come on, guys. This was the fourth movie featuring a hugely popular character who your audiences are invested in. But at the same time, they’re probably getting tired of same old, same old Iron Man. So if you wanted the movie to be a super-success, you would need to offer them something new while still pulling on their prior investment. If this movie actually explored a real contemporary issue in a meaningful way, everyone would go apeshit. Most superhero movies generally only talk about politics in the most ham-handed and goofy way possible, even when their writers and directors should know better (*cough*Christopher Nolan*cough*)

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1% OF THE BATMANS HAVE 99% OF THE WEALTH. OCCUPY GOTHAM

The only films that have done it successfully have been the X-Men movies, which tend to work because they can talk about issues without explicitly talking about them– being a mutant can be a metaphor for being Jewish, being black, being gay…

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By the time X-Men: First Class came out, the writers were tired of you not getting the point and just made the homosexuality explicit.

So, if you pulled this off, it would have meant a lot. And you had something big that would have let you do that. And you blew it. What did you waste? BEN FUCKING KINGSLEY.

Yes, the revelation that Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin is no more than a coked-out actor was fucking hilarious. But consider what the film loses when it makes that revelation. In his videos, Kingsley’s Mandarin is compelling and menacing. His voice is like “a Baptist preacher’s.” He speaks with a chilling moral certainty. And he totally raises a whole bunch of issues about capitalism and American power, some things that Tony Stark totally represents– albeit in a vague and incoherent way.

If they had stuck with him as the main villain, and actually developed it well, it would have been amazing. Because Kingsley is a compelling motherfucker. And he’s Gandhi! Dude, just think about Gandhi calling out and challenging Tony Stark (and implicitly us, America) about the problems surrounding capital accumulation and arbitrary exercise of power. And then being terrifying and horrifyingly killing a whole bunch of people in unpredictable ways, Heath Ledger Joker-style. It would have shocked us hard and made us really think about shit. Postcolonial-type shit.

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Frantz Fanon Approves (I can’t figure out who painted this.

Anyone who helps with attribution gets a cookie!

UPDATE: It’s by Mustapha Boutadjine.  Ike Jose figures it out within an hour of posting!  )

But instead, Kingsley is a fraud and his backer, a much less compelling man who has a much more boring plot to inflict perpetual war on the world in order to make a profit from arms-dealing, is the real villain. Yawn. We had evil arms-dealing profiteers in the first Iron Man movie, guys, and it didn’t really mean anything then either. This shit’s played out. You had a chance to get some major thematic depth out of your villain, and blew it. Don’t be proud of yourselves.

PS: The film also totally screwed up its handling Stark’s PTSD, but I’ll talk about that later, with my own personal Greatest Disappointment of Oscar Season 2012.  I’m talking about YOU, Silver Linings Playbook

Counterfactuals: On Cherche Nemo

by Henry Gorman

Pixar has never been afraid to tap into well-beloved mythologies to drive its films. Brave pulled its threads from a rich tapestry of Celtic folklore. Cars derived its appeal from America’s cult of motorsport. Up has a high-adventure ancestry stretching back through Indiana Jones and the tales of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs to a foundation of Western literature, the Odyssey itself. The Incredibles drew its strength from two of the mightiest modern American myths: the all-powerful superhero and the even stronger nuclear family.

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 Nothing can stop the power of heteronormative procreation!

But Pixar has also tapped into a mythos even more sacred to filmmakers’ hearts. I’m referring, of course, to that 1960s-era explosion of cinematic creativity, the French New Wave.

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 A poster from Jules et Jim, an archetypal French New Wave film.

Yes, this counts as meeting the art history quota.  Shut up.

Where, we might ask, is this influence most visible? Perhaps, one might think, in Toy Story, a film which simultaneously highlights its characters’ artificial nature and their very real pain, using its characters’ status as commodities themselves to subtly comment on the condition of human beings trapped in a capitalist world. Or, perhaps in Ratatouille, a film that raises questions about the nature of creation, authenticity, and art. Or The Incredibles, which, like Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, appropriates the iconography of speculative fiction for its own possibly subversive purposes.

But no! We see the influence of that French cinematic tidal wave most sharply in the most surprising of films: Finding Nemo, that heartwarming tale of a father clownfish’s quest to save his son. What you probably don’t know is that Finding Nemo is a remake of On Cherche Nemo, a mostly-forgotten masterpiece released by Jean-Luc Godard in 1963.

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100% Pure Art Cinema, motherfuckers

On Cherche Nemo is set in the big French port city of Marseilles. There, a moody, withdrawn widower named Marlin (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) lives alone in his apartment with his beloved, crippled son, a boy named Nemo. Marlin is finally convinced by his caring neighbors to take the boy to school. Unfortunately, at the day’s end, the lad, in a fit of rebellion, wanders off on his own at the day’s end and becomes lost.

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Belmondo as Marlin, wandering forlorn through the city

The shy Marlin is forced to explore the world for the first time as he wanders the streets of Marseilles searching for his son. He is accosted by three vicious gangsters who debate what to do with him while pointedly imitating the tropes of 1930s American gangster film. As Marlin is about to perish at their hands, he is saved by the intervention of  Dorée, a playful young woman (played by Anna Karina, of course) who has such disdain for the past that she refuses to acknowledge its existence. Together, Marlin and Dorée wander about Marseilles looking for the boy, frequently turning to talk to the camera about their adventures. Dorée’s deliberate forgetfulness underlines the fragmentation produced by Goddard’s typical narrative style and his extensive use of jump cuts.

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Belmondo as Marlin again, in the now-infamous “chicken scene”

Nemo, meanwhile, finds himself in the waiting room of a dentist’s office. He is surrounded by a motley cast of characters, representative of a broad variety of human types. All of them have been waiting to leave the office forever, but have failed to escape. They talk to Nemo about themselves. It quickly becomes clear that the room is symbolic of life in what Jean-Paul Sartre calls “bad faith,” and none of them will be able to escape until they recognize the nature of the human condition.

Marlin and Dorée negotiate a series of hazards, including a mysterious mob of masked knife-wielding strangers who reveal themselves to be harmless when Dorée plays with them (the jellyfish in Finding Nemo), and a kindly, carefree beatnik who gives them a ride in his car (the turtle). Marlin develops courage and no longer lives in fear of the world around him, at one point driving a car into the water to demonstrate his liberation.

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Their car, in the water

Ultimately, the pair arrive at the waiting room, where, with the help of the inmates, Dorée and Marlin are able to save Nemo from the depths of anomie. The film ends happily with all three liberated from the chains of past experience.

Disclaimer: Everything above is totally made up.  But you probably wish it was true.

A Perfect and Beautiful Imagination: Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby

by Henry Gorman

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Spoilers will follow. But you probably read this book in high school anyway, so you should go right ahead.

First things first: Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is really fucking different from that book you read in high school. Fitzgerald’s novel is measured, subtle, and delicately crafted. Its title is ironic. It ends with a revelation of Gatsby’s hollowness. His grandstanding, elaborate public persona is but a paper-thin sham covering pathetic dreams.

Baz Luhrman, glorious grandiose cinematic man-child that he is, has no time for boring things like “subtletly” or “irony” or “ten minutes without any intense images or sound.” His Jay Gatsby is unapologetically great. His film preserves Gatsby’s history, but it reveals his deceptions at its midpoint rather than its end, and changes their presentation. Gatsby’s fabulations cease to be shameful marks of his hidden life, and instead become manifestations of his idealistic and incorruptible dream. As Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan would say, they emanate from his “perfect and beautiful imagination.” The film shares his excess, replacing the book’s dry sensibility with a sustained explosion of color, costuming, and copulation, all set to a furious soundtrack of thunderous hip-hop beats, bombastic contemporary pop, and roaring automobile engines. Clearly Luhrman, himself a mad dreamer of the first class, could not but celebrate the earnest young man who, in his film, once gazed at the Milky Way shining above his tawdry North Dakota home and decided that he could become more.

Some among you will shout “Baz is bastardizing Gatsby! It’s time to pan this motherfucker!” But I do not make a fetish of any novel, and I have no truck with those who demand that adaptations not transform their source material. The unsanctioned offspring of Fitzgerald’s prose and Luhrman’s lurid mind is a powerful and original work of art which exquisitely captures the atmosphere and feel of its setting.

Again, you will cry out: “But how can this be? Surely, there was not rap music in the 1920s! Girls should be doing the Charleston, not anything this booty-shaking! Also, parties were not that crazy! Colors were not that bright! New York was not that sunny and shining! Motor-cars were not that fast or loud!”

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(1920s star Josephine Baker doing the Charleston)

But here, Baz Luhrman’s abandons specific visual and auditory details in service of the “feel” of the city in the 1920s. Skyscrapers had just begun to spring up. Jazz was a new, transgressive, and indubitably black form of music. The “Modern Girl” flirted and smoked and Charlestoned her way into American cities’ streets and American boys’ hearts, aggressively challenging traditional ideas about female sexuality. The speed and energy of motorcars was so fresh and astonishing that an Italian poet could build a new art movement on the experience of a single night out running over dogs and crashing in a ditch (This is in Filipo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. Go google it and read it. You will not regret it). And life in the modern city, with its constant barrage of information and stimulation, was absolutely overwhelming to people who had just journeyed there. German thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Georg Simnel, seeking to explain the turmoil and unease that gripped their world, treated this overwhelming sensory stimulation, and the sense of both awe and disorientation that it caused, as one of the determining features of life in the modern capitalist world.

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(The City as seen by Modernist Painter Fernand Leger)

It’s just impossible for us to experience the reality of 1920s New York as 1920s New Yorkers did. Jazz today is for bourgeois-bohemians and old people. Flapper dresses and the Charleston are the province of quaint theme parties. Cars are just how we get to work. And thanks to TV and the internet, we’ve been stimulated since birth. So Baz Luhrman replaced all the period-accurate things that just wouldn’t evoke right sensations with things that would. Jazz not edgy or black enough? Use hip-hop! Cars not loud and crazy enough? Crank up the speed and volume! World not stimulating enough! Fill it with color! By ignoring the details of the 1920s, he captures their feeling better than a measured, unstylized, accurate representation actually would. And that is a fantastic achievement.

Of course, all this stimulation will leave some viewers exhausted. The film could have used more variation. Its grittier moments in the Valley of Ashes, which reveal the darker side of modernity– pollution, industrial ugliness, a dirty and alienated working class– are striking because of their contrast to the rest of the film. Luhrman should have given us more of this kind of feeling– both to better represent the era and to heighten the most intense moments of debauchery.

But I am willing to forgive this flaw in such an audacious film. One scene, where Nick Carraway gets drunk for only the second time in his life, will remain in my memory forever. Never has a director made the simple act of partying so gloriously Dionysian. The whole film is a Bacchanal, suffused with the same savage, joyous imaginative intensity that fills its male lead’s heart.