15.8.12

The Avengers

My problem with The Avengers is that Thor was too good. Specifically, Tom Hiddleston in Thor, whose performance I think matches the range and intensity of Heath Ledger's Joker. As Film Crit Hulk (my own film crit hero) points out, in The Avengers Loki serves to accentuate and develop the arcs of the six main characters. But this leaves less room to explore his own background and motivations.

Let's look at those anyway. From Thor, Hiddleston brings a feeling of resentment and ambition, but he also takes on something of the Red Skull's ideology in Captain America. Humans have weak minds imprisoned in frail bodies, and require a Nietzschean strong man to rule them. Happiness for most lies in the predictability of slavery — the alienation of the responsibility associated with free will.

And the way humanity decides to fight this evil is... to get a bunch of strong men to defend or avenge them. There is a tension here, which was brought out for me in a scene between Captain America and two cops, where the latter claim the responsibility of defending the innocent, before willingly divesting themselves of that responsibility as soon as Cap demonstrates his superior strength. This moment is played for laughs, and sure Cap's authority comes from charisma rather than fear — the fact that the Avengers use their power to defend freedom makes them the heroes. And the totemic idea of Phil as the rallying force behind the team gives an 'of the people' spin on their activities. I'm aware of all that. But when I remember Nietzsche's point that charisma is ultimately produced by fear, the vox pop platitudes at the end of the film leave me with some rather uncomfortable feelings.

Whedon's work always pits the small guys against the big evil. Without the army, Loki is just one big guy against six (which includes the Hulk). A more satisfying villain for Whedon would have been the shadowy (quite literally) cabal behind S.H.I.E.L.D, and the film takes some steps in that direction. Whedon undercuts Fury's endorsement of nuclear weapons; the problem of the alien invasion is solved without them. Retaliation is delivered in spite of what the Avengers were doing on the ground in Manhattan, and it is clear that it will have serious repercussions in the next film, as the strike draws the eye of Thanos. If Whedon is indeed to direct the sequel, I expect extraterrestrials will not be the only antagonists the new team will have to face.

ETA: There has been a bit of discussion about the relative objectification of Black Widow compared with Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. It did strike me when watching the latter that the Nolans were overtly taking care to ensure that Anne Hathaway was never sexualised by the film itself, only by characters in the film. On the other hand, The Avengers features a two-shot of Scarlett Johansson with Tom Hiddleston in which this happens (thank you internet). The thing to emphasise about the frame is that it does work on a character level — Black Widow as this rooted immovable object on which Loki is weaving his manipulative spells. But it also features a leather-clad arse squarely in the audience's face (i.e. a sexual object on which the audience are invited to...) POINT BEING, both of these things are going on. I guess for those not interested in Johansson's arse, the character stuff may be enough of a justification for the shot to be framed in this way, but I have to admit that it took me right out of the film. Points lost there, Mr. Whedon. Also, me.

Should say that I think in other respects Black Widow's character bests Catwoman's in the feminism game, in that the Nolans end up throwing Kyle at Batman as a consolation prize for his trials, while Romanoff is more self-defined throughout. It's tricky though, because both characters essentially conform to the same femme fatale archetype. I do like Whedon's decision to emphasize the way Black Widow consciously creates the impression of vulnerability in order to work loose the prizes she is after (an aaaage is spent establishing this trait at the beginning of the film). Using femininity as a way to exploit patriarchy for your own ends. It's not a new idea (you could argue the femme fatale archetype is built on this), but a good way of addressing her sexualisation in the future. Black Widow CHOOSES to be objectified. The impression of weakness is a weapon wielded from a place of strength.

13.8.12

Prometheus

Nothing these characters do seems to make sense. For sure. I mean, the film just has the stupidest scientists ever. Damning in a project that has this much money, and such a renowned legacy to live up to. With that in mind, these basic lapses become unforgivable. This film is an abject failure in formal terms.

And yet, and yet...

I caught quite a late screening, and went straight home to bed afterwards. And I dreamed about it, vividly. The dream didn't repeat any of the scenarios or visuals in the film. To be honest, my dream was in many respects more awesome – featuring a reanimated tyrannosaurus rex imbued with a human consciousness, and a perpetual survivor protagonist like Abélard Lindsay from Schismatrix, who is there to observe the decay and death of the human race (I think some sort of wish fulfillment on my part maybe). It was all very Grant Morrison telling tales of the dying Earth. I wish I could remember more of it. Unfortunately, the dream was SO awesome it woke me up in the middle of the night. I made a concerted effort to memorize as much as possible and then promptly went back to sleep, so that failed. Anyway, the emotional state created by the film obviously has some kind of staying power, which was carried over into my sleeping life.

One line from the film in particular sent me down this rabbit hole. Paraphrased: "they created us and now they want to kill us, I need to know why". It got me thinking about the desire to understand your origin and the origin of the universe, and how this has manifested historically in the imagination of great benevolent beings that have sacrificed themselves to bring about life. The opening sequence of the film makes this Promethean myth literal. But the universe these gods have created, not to mention the very stuff of humanity, is dangerous. The gods are not only capricious but murderously so. The void beyond our tiny planet is an inhospitable nightmare. The universe is not benevolent. It is out to kill us. We are now facing down an environmental cataclysm that may very well lead to our annihilation. We now have the technological capacity to wipe out our entire civilization. Like the Engineers in this film, if we are not careful our weapons may be the end of us.

For me, the film is less about the act of creation and more about the feeling of being created, without knowing the reasons why, and the slowly dawning realization that we may become extinct NEVER knowing the reasons why. It reminds me of that time as a teenager when I was grappling with these questions. Specifically, I remember reading about the impact a supervolcano or a meteor can have on the Earth, and recoiling in horror at the possibility of so much unaccountable human death. Emotionally, I had to convince myself that such colossal meaningless destruction would never be allowed to happen, something must exist to prevent it. I couldn't otherwise cope or process that glimpse into the very purposelessness of existence. It was a kind of existential nausea, perhaps. Or maybe something closer to Lovecraftian cosmic horror.

Alien may owe something to Lovecraft, I don't know – the cold iron maiden embrace of deep space. The xenomorph was also a creature of single-minded predatory sexuality, an image of the most destructive, dehumanizing aspects of the human psyche. Both of these ideas are in Prometheus, although actually its most terrifying scene is the med-pod sequence where Shaw gives birth to a totally repellent, rapacious squid creature. The body horror was so acute I had to look away from the screen for several seconds (and I thought I was relatively inured to scary movies by now). If it alludes to the virgin birth, it is all the more irreverent and disconcerting: suggesting in stark terms that humans have the capacity to spawn mewling needy selfish monsters, and that mothers may find their children utterly inexplicable and disgusting.

Film Crit Hulk, whose writing I have recently discovered and have fallen very hard for (dude is so otm on everything), has argued that the film's insistence that the gods do not explain their ways to man, whilst being a worthy theme, also necessarily leads to unsatisfying drama. Instead, Lindelof should have had the courage to supply his own explanation in the face of a meaningless reality – human beings having always created meaning through storytelling and artistic endeavour. I don't think that advice is correct, because despite the endless idiocy of the characters and the senselessness of the plot, the ideas behind the film still managed to evoke a very strong emotional response, at least for me (as I have indicated, I'm rather susceptible to the concerns of this film). I think there could have been a way to fix the mechanics of the film's story whilst preserving the thematic foundation which Lindelof pitched for the film, and which supplies its peculiar horror. We shouldn't discount the possibility that Lindelof is a good guy with interesting ideas who just isn't very good at the nuts and bolts of storytelling.

6.8.12

The Dark Knight Rises

I had tempered my expectations for this, and they were met. The Dark Knight is one of my favourite films ever, but otherwise I am not much of a Nolan partisan, finding their work minus Heath Ledger impressively constructed but emotionally distant.

I was thinking a little bit about why that is. It's strange, because the Nolans have had the opportunity to work with very talented actors. Michael Caine, for example, has a couple of really intense scenes in the new Dark Knight Rises film. You cannot fault his performance, I think, but there is something in the way it is presented that robs it of impact, at least for me.

A film can be seen as being composed of five elements: plot, character, setting, theme and style (mise en scène might be the more appropriate term, but it is very pretentious. And French). The Nolans are master mechanics when building plot, and Inception might be the best showcase for their proficiency in this field. The Dark Knight Rises is also extremely busy plot-wise, despite the fact that it's near three hours long. Every scene is briskly efficient with moving the story along, and character-building is fitted around the necessity of getting from point A to B. So the swings in character arcs are sudden, and not always properly earned. When Alfred's tearful goodbye came up, I wasn't really connecting with the emotional content of the scene, just thinking the film needed to get rid of Alfred now. Plot takes precedence over character.

Of the five elements, plot is the least important for me. If a film has complex characters, intelligent themes, a well-designed world and an original style, I'll be ready to forgive lazy plotting, if I notice it at all. This is why the Nolans' intricate story constructions fail to dazzle me the way they do many others. I found Inception frustrating because it was a lot of hard work (I had to see the film twice to really understand what was happening) and it didn't leave me with very much at the end of it.

Just as an aside, I didn't much like the decision to end Inception on a question, which I thought was a tongue-in-cheek switch-around designed to break the fourth wall and get the audience thinking about films as compact inception operations. This is an interesting point, sure, but it also dissolves the film's dramatic resolution. I'm quite glad that Dark Knight Rises settles for a punchy statement instead.

Quite a lot of the discussion around The Dark Knight Rises has revolved around plot-holes, actually. I cannot add anything to it apart from to say that all the Batman films feature hair-brained Bond villain ridiculous schemes, and I admire the way the Nolans stay true to the ludicrous nature of the superhero genre whilst keeping the tone dark and gritty — a well-executed balancing act between realism and pulp.

What is interesting is that these plot-holes are standing out for people, despite the fact that the other films could be picked apart just as easily. I think this may be due to The Dark Knight Rises not managing to present a coherent theme which justifies the loopy story it is composed of, as The Dark Knight did. This is discussed in greater detail here and here, and I don't see the need to go over the same ground. Just to say that the exegesis around the use of images that recall Occupy and Al Qaeda is not facetious. Or if it is, the film-makers are to blame for putting the allusions there without making sense of them. The film ends up presenting a really weird axis of evil, worthy of the deranged Frank Miller. I suspect, as Film Crit Hulk does, that the Nolans were not consciously filling their film with right-wing paranoia. Their focus was squarely aimed on the character of Bruce Wayne and giving him a heroic, happy send-off. The Dark Knight Rises is about fan service and spectacle, and the suggestive allusions were thrown in with little thought.

1.8.12

'there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men' - Herman Melville, Moby Dick