Man of Steel: A Thoughtful Film that Gets Superman Right

June 14, 2013

I have attempted to avoid spoilers in this review, but different people have different spoiler thresholds. Caveat emptor.

We all bring baggage of some kind into the art we experience, even if it’s not liking art or never having seen Mad Men because you’re lame. Sometimes it’s an intense identification with a character who’s celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday this year. But maybe you’re in the “don’t like ‘splosions” crowd or the “NO CHANGES!” confederacy or you really just like Batman uber alles. I get that. I’ve been some of those people.

I love Superman. As a kid, I wore Superman pajamas until they didn’t fit anymore, and continued for a while even after my feet burst

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Christopher Reeve as Superman

through the soles of the stocking part. I watched Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie as often as I could, and Terence Stamp was my idea of self-important rebel leaders before I knew what that really meant. I watched whatever the hell Superman III and IV were supposed to be, and they kind of freaked me out (III came out when I was 2, so I probably saw it for the first time when I was 4 or 5. At least one scene in that movie is *intense*). I watched Supergirl, and a not so successful Superboy TV show, and Lois & Clark, a dull show with some inspired performances.

My main takeaway from what I saw in Superman in films and television and a very few comics read in the supermarket while Mom was grocery shopping, is that if we have the chance, we should help people. Even when the bad guy is the one who needs help. Maybe, if you’re the only one who can help but that help may kill you, you still help. Even if it seems impossible, you still try, no matter the odds. Superman does everything, and anything, he can, to help people who need his help.

Superman made sense to me. He has amazing gifts, but he doesn’t use them for frivolity like financial gain or athletics. He uses his powers to make a decent living for himself as a normal guy, and to help other people who wouldn’t be helped if he weren’t there. To make a difference.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve established a more complex view of how Superman’s powers work and should be used, and as I’ve been reading up on the modern era of Superman comics these last few months, I’m glad to see that comic book writers think with greater complexity on these issues, too. Superman is still a good man, who uses his powers to help people, and sometimes entire civilizations. I’m on board with that. But he is also a man: he makes mistakes, and he lives in a world where sometimes, the morally correct choice isn’t between the good and the bad, it’s between the bad and the awful, or the bad and the vaguely worse. He can’t always solve problems by being faster, stronger, or smarter than the bad guys. Stories don’t always have happy endings. Like the real world. I’m happy with this version of Superman: I like the big blue Scout, but a man of his stature surely encounters issues more complex than whether to save a kitten from a tree.

As I entered Man of Steel, I was a man who wears the shield of El as a ring on his finger every day, with the experience of reading thousands of comic books and dozens of graphic novels and a few scholarly essays on the subject of my favorite hero. Can Man of Steel live up to the Superman I believe in, a man who saves the world by helping people, by using his abilities in a good cause, by fighting when there is no fight left in him, while still acknowledging that even the powers of a god can’t solve every problem in a clean, positive way?

Happily, it managed to meet and exceed those wishes, and I am very happy for its success. It is complex, has substantial arcs for each of its three leads (who I take to be Clark, Lois, and Zod), and gets Superman right: he’s a great man. Flawed, but still great. [Warning: there may be spoilers beyond this point. I tried to avoid them, but there are some plot details you might not want to know]

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Why You Should See an Uwe Boll Movie

June 20, 2010

Photo by Michael Heilemann courtesy of http://www.bollfans.de

My recent research on the infamous genre/video-game film director Uwe Boll has raised some eyebrows, both professionally and personally.  After all, am I not just a lowly East German film scholar, fighting “nobly” for a “lost” cinema?  What the hell am I doing flirting with the worst director in the world, let alone evaluating his work on its own terms?  Several people have asked me directly how I can be interested in a director whose slapdash aesthetic is modeled off the made-for-TV movie.  The wheels of concern about me as a sane individual have started to turn.  Boll has apparently become such a perfect “bad object” of cinema that one wonders why someone of intelligence would buy into his attention-getting schema.

Nevertheless, if you’re an intelligent person, you should see an Uwe Boll film.  Here’s why:

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“Magicians Don’t Exist” – The Illusionist (2010)

February 21, 2010

Though the “buzz” this year at the 60th Berlinale has been primarily reserved for films like Scorcese’s Shutter Island (2010) and Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010) (the latter of which just won the Silver Bear for Best Director tonight), a real gem outside of the buzz lay in the obscure reaches of the “Berlinale Special Gala” section, namely director Sylvain Chomet‘s latest 2D animated feature, the UK/French co-production The Illusionist (2010).

I saw the world premiere at the Kino International in Berlin on February 16, 2010 with Chomet in attendance.  It was quite excellent.

In case you want to skip to “what I think” of the film as a cultural consumer in shorter blurb form, here it is with complimentary quotation marks:

“A bittersweet and arguably timeless encounter between the theater of attractions and the television-centric post-war world.  Chomet has not so much created a hyperbolic version of our reality (as in Triplets of Belleville), but rather has created a living archive of Edinburgh ca. 1959 that troubles the boundaries of nostalgia.”

There you have it.  The rest, as they say, is details.

2/3 of the Plot

I won’t spoil the film here too much, so I’ll describe the film in the classic “2/3 of the film” format embodied in so many trailers and film publicity:

Europe 1959: An aging illusionist finds diminishing audiences for his productions as he is supplanted by new forms of entertainment such as rock n’ roll.  When he travels to an obscure isle off Scotland celebrating the introduction of electricity (the very technology displacing his brand of entertainment), he gets to know the daughter of a local family.  The girl sneaks off with the illusionist, and winds up living with him in Edinburgh as he struggles to scrape together a living.  There they meet challenges that will test the bounds of their relationship…

Background

The script to this mostly silent film was originally written by French filmmaker Jacques Tati in 1956.  Chomet got the script in 2000 from Sophie Tatischeff, Tati’s daughter, and has been working on it with his team over the last decade.  There is some strong overlap between Tati’s biography and the content of the film, such that the illusionist in the film even resembles the famous director down to his minute movements.  The film had a budget of 10 million pounds, primarily provided by the French film company Pathé.

For an old-school animator, Chomet has a remarkable record of attracting banal controversies, from Nicolas De Crécy’s allegations of plagiarism regarding The Triplets of Belleville (2004), to his off-hand remarks after he moved to Edinburgh about how Scottish art schools insufficiently trained their animators, from the fraught development of a surrealist “Scottish Simpsons” TV show called The Clan to accusations by Jacques Tati’s grandson that The Illusionist writes Tati’s illegitimate daughter Helga out of the family history.  When placed next to each other, however, these “controversies” appear relatively tame and more the product of scandalization mechanisms within the modern media attention economy rather than missteps on the director’s part.  Nevertheless, Chomet bears a somewhat tarnished image within the international animation community, perhaps if only for completing The Illusionist nearly three years behind schedule and needing to export much of the cell animation on the project to presumably underpaid South Korean animators.

Why Magicians Don’t Exist

If you watch The Illusionist, however, you can actually see Chomet’s relationship with this “tarnish.”  The film is an allegory of the artist’s relation to indifferent socio-economic processes, an open-ended narrative about the cruelty of the system in which one must ply one’s trade.  In a fateful moment of the film, the illusionist writes the girl a note simply stating that “Magicians don’t exist.”  Chomet elaborated on this point in the discussion after the film:

“I’m not trying to say with this film that magic doesn’t exist.
Ask any animator and they can prove you wrong.  But Tatischeff
believes that magicians don’t exist – these people who can
constantly perform miracles for an expectant audience.”

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but the point rings true through the content of the film:  we see that people are somewhat impressed by the magic that the illusionist practices, despite the pathetic ambience of the music hall and his not having control over his rabbit in the hat, but no one can truly live off such tricks.  There is no magician trade; just schmucks who can make a few bucks off their magic.  I actually recall Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) bearing a similar message, with Hugh Jackman’s character declaring that “the audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through.”  In an era when filmmakers can easily make a successful first film, but almost inevitably choke on hard financial realities when attempting to make their second film, Chomet’s portrait of the artist under capitalism is finely depicted.

There are some who might call The Illusionist nostalgic, but that would be their own misreading of the text.  The magician’s rabbit is hostile, the unwilling slave of the magician.  Every car that drives by is foregrounded on the soundtrack, a continuous reminder of the loudness of the consumer automobile age.  Computer animation effects are mixed in with the 2D cell animation (as Hayao Miyazaki did in Ponyo, for example) when more dramatically effective, soiling the work’s aesthetic “purity.”  The characters seem selfish and more than a little naive.  What we are seeing, rather than nostalgia, is the modernist confrontation between two parallel systems of entertainment capital, vaudeville/music halls vs. television/radio (and cell animation vs. CGI animation), neither morally superior but one supplanting the other nevertheless.  The film roots itself in the polemics of the 70s animated film The Mouse and His Child (1977), in which the Old meeting the New reveals the tragic flaws of both.  This is also not to forget similar overtones in Triplets:  the three vaudeville flappers leading impoverished existences in order to maintain careers as artists.

All that being said, the real magic of Chomet’s work will forever be sealed in his treatment of animals:  the persistently dog-like dog of Triplets has met its match in the persistently rabbit-like rabbit in The Illusionist.  Human beings may be like objects trapped in time and circumstance, but the animals preserve the spontaneity and personality that keeps us going to animated films.

-posted by guyintheblackhat


Pushing Avatar off a Red Cliff

December 20, 2009
Avatar the Film

Zoe Saldana in Avatar

Hype for film technological breakthroughs is apparently still what leads us into the cinema these days… next to word-of-mouth, of course.  Fortunately for Avatar (2009), it has both – its opening weekend has easily smashed all existing box office records for a 3D film, and has its eyes on taking the top spot overall.  A strong opening weekend is perhaps to be expected, however, for a film that reputedly cost half a billion dollars to make and distribute.  Lumbering James Cameron behemoths like Terminator 2 (1991) or Titanic (1997) were also very profitable gambles in this respect – the former was effectively one long chase scene that demonstrated how the latest CGI could be mobilized to tap into white American male emotion, the latter a five-act tragedy that tapped into white American female emotion.  Cameron’s films are the kinds of films people see more than once:  they tug on enough emotional strings to produce occasional vertiginous feelings while keeping the visual effects rolling to catch your heart at the next turn in the plot.  His films are effective because they are affective, his plots predictable but oh-so “classic,” his high concepts putting even Steven Spielberg’s successes with Jaws (1975) and E.T. (1982) to shame.  Avatar is no exception.

So why didn’t this latest film, which was up my alley in terms of its sci-fi premise, colonial struggles and gratuitous deployment of mecha, bowl me over as it did countless cinema-goers?

Because I saw John Woo’s Red Cliff (2009) first.

******THE SPOILER BOUNDARY — YOU’VE BEEN WARNED ******

Chiling Lin in Red Cliff

“What?!” you exclaim. “But Avatar was so awesome!  All the special effects majors (save Pixar) put their heart and soul into it:  Digital Domain, Industrial Light and Magic, and Weta Digital.  It’s in 3D and looks gorgeous.  Sure, the plot is clichéd, but what plot isn’t?  It totally has a subversive message against colonialism and the exploitation of our Earth.  This is the future of filmaking.  You’re living in the past, man.”

Gentle reader, Avatar itself is definitively a construct of the past:  James Cameron actually wrote the treatment back in 1994, but shelved it until 2006 out of film-technological concerns.  This means that those who are making Dances of Wolves (1993), Pocahontas (1995) and *ahem* FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992, see also 20th Century Fox, Avatar’s distributor) comparisons with the film hit the nail on the head:  Avatar has much more to do with those “going native” narratives than, say, the postcolonial violence depicted in District 9 (2009).  It lives and breathes the multiculturalism of the early 90s, rather than the stale air of globalization and colonial legacies of asymmetrical exploitation in places like South Africa, Israel/Palestine or Pakistan.  As an “adult fairytale,” it offers an almost suffocating sense of nostalgia for the days when we audiences were just starting to think about things like the environment and social inequalities of race/class/gender in terms of mainstream action.

Despite the principal emphasis of all reviewers on the film as an “effects achievement,” I find its major successes to be located in its subtext rather than its revolutionary 3D stereoscopic cameras, etc.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) as a believably stubborn handicapped marine.  Three strong women characters – Saldana’s Neytiri, Sigourney Weaver’s Grace and Michelle Rodriguez’ Trudy – give the viewers a variety of models of positive femininity.  Neytiri even manages to save our hero protagonist’s life twice at the end, though the other two women have to die in “exchange.”  The map the Colonel (Stephen Lang) puts on the wall of the gathering tribes reminded me of the animated map at the beginning of Fritz Hippler’s Nazi propaganda film Feldzug in Polen (1940), in which the gathering Nav’i armies seem like a bacteria or disease encroaching on the borders of “civilization.”  The implication that the neural network established throughout Pandora was in many ways more advanced than the artificial networks generated by man is a pleasant and original fantasy in our Internet era.

All of this subtlety (which I assume emerged because there were many intelligent people working on this project) proved fragile, however, against the blubber-filled weight of the film’s Hollywood exportable aesthetics and the Campbellian three-act screenplay.  Complex institutions such as colonizing empires are reduced to simplistic, one-dimensional characters: the greedy project organizer (Giovanni Ribisi — capitalism/corporations), the bloodthirsty colonel (military) and the aloof xenologist (science).  The viewers are delivered the biotopia with the exotic landscapes and species without being in the dubious position of conqueror/explorer (since Jake Sully feels bad and changes sides).  And most importantly, the resistance strategies offered by the film are reduced to A) global solidarity among the Nav’i tribes, B) heroic sacrifice by noble savages with their bows and arrows, C) the hero happens to be *sigh* the Chosen One and D) Pandora puts nature itself as a weapon at the heroes’ disposal.  Aptly put, we are given the feeling of resistance to imperialism without being given any of the methods, beyond the magic of Hollywood.

Why Red Cliff is Better

Red Cliff is a better film than Avatar because it is a bountiful wealth of said resistance methods (though – fear not! – John Woo loved Avatar).  Woo’s first directorial effort in China since Hard Boiled (1992) tells the famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms historical epic through the eyes of two of its master strategist heroes – Zhou Yu (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Zhuge Liang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) – as they lead a desperate battle against the invading armies of the fearless Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang).  At a fifth of Avatar‘s reported price-tag ($80 million), the film was nevertheless the most expensive Asian film to date and not the least bit short (runtime 238 min., cut down to 148 min. for international release) to boot.  Budget spent in Avatar on obscenely high-tech effects was deployed toward armies of hundreds of extras and several expensive-looking fight sequences.  Nevertheless, Red Cliff‘s visuals in 2D look equally stunning as Avatar‘s in 3D.  This is to say – using Peter Wuss’ PKS model – the films stand toe-to-toe with each other in terms of perception-leading structures, which leave us with narrative-leading and stereotype-leading structures to differentiate the films (Don’t get me started on stereotypes in Avatar).  Whereas Avatar insists on narrative-leading structures that produce affect against the backdrop of unreflected war imagery (i.e., destruction of home-tree, the final air battle sequence, etc.), Red Cliff seeks narrative-leading structures that both engage the intellect and produce affect against war itself.

Yes, Red Cliff is an anti-war movie in a way that Avatar cannot possibly be.  Significant screen-time is spent discussing strategy for many decisive battles, and such discussions lead directly into intellectual engagement with the battle sequences:  how does one beat an overwhelming enemy?  What formations are to be used?  Why will atmospheric conditions shift the conflict one way and not another?  Like Howard Hawks before him, Woo concentrates his films on professionals who are forced into the greatest professional challenge of their lives.  Whereas Avatar persists with visually articulated moralizing discourses about native populations and environmental exploitation, Red Cliff takes discourse of oppressor/oppressed as a given and instead preoccupies itself with the material waging of war.  The anti-war message is imparted by Tony Leung’s beautifully tragic facial expressions as he watches his strategies work.  Rather than reducing all characters to multi-dimensional heroes and one-dimensional villains who are justified in killing each other over their respective moral principles, all of the violence crossing the screen in Red Cliff comes with a moral price tag.  Clashes of civilizations transform into precisely the relationship of symbiotic violence portrayed in the hunting rituals of the Nav’i (that is then abandoned in favor of the action movie/revenge motif).  Resistance is not mythical and leap-of-faith efforts, but intellectual work.

All of this ranting and raving is, of course, intended to get you to see Red Cliff, or at least think about it as you fork over $14 for your 3D ticket.  If you’re seeing Avatar for its fantastic visuals, then by all means go and enjoy the colors.  But if you’re looking for a solid story that offers a moral perspective on current events, China has beaten the USA/UK/New Zealand conglomerate at a fifth the price.


Star TrekWarsThulhu

May 11, 2009
Zachary Quinto's Spock turns on the geek sex appeal.

Zachary Quinto's Spock turns on the geek sex appeal.

If you haven’t yet seen the new Star Trek movie, then you obviously weren’t contributing to its staggering $148 million box-office weekend worldwide. Reaching out to old fans and new recruits alike, the film offers not only a fascinating insight into how one resumes control over a powerful franchise on the big screen, but also how saturated with dedicated generic references such franchise films have become. Star Trek (2009) is, according to a close friend of mine who runs a comic book shop, unabashed “geek porn:” an astonishing array of references, insinuations, cool gadgets and eye candy made specifically for geeks to feel, well, awesomely sexy. I am more of the opinion that it’s “geek foreplay” – here’s why:

****SPOILERS ALERT!! SEE THE MOVIE OR BE… UM, SPOILED?***

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The Sheik & Social Mores part 2

November 13, 2008

Initially, I had envisioned part 2 (part 1 here) as comparing and contrasting the continuum from reel–>read–> real. In the future I’d like to steer back in that direction with some other silent film, perhaps The Lost World or Phantom of the Opera. In the meantime I’ve gone off on a bit of a literary bender related to the Near East, chewing thorough numerous online references, Persian Pictures (1892) by Gertrude Bell, and Winter in Arabia (1937-38) by Freya Stark. I wasn’t that impressed with Pictures, but Winter in Arabia is an excellent companion piece to Nicholas Clapp’s Sheba.

A lot of people have gotten mileage off the Sheik-Valentino mythos, particularly on sociological topics including race, class, gender roles and the taming of otherness. These have been covered in professional literature, which I’ll leave to you to look up. Despite my earlier dismissal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, there’s actually a lot more alike than dissimilar between the two novels, but LC is consistently included on the ‘banned books’ list while The Sheik is remembered as an early popular romance. Why the contrast in notoriety?

The authors (E.M. Hull and D.H. Lawrence) were contemporaries, both with a Derbyshire connection, but from different social classes. Each novel deals with an intimate relationship that was disturbing to the prevailing mind set (LC class reasons, S racial/colonial issues), involving blunt, passion-driven men and women described as remote or cool to emotion. Both also deal with sex as something that happens, this touch of directness in Hull’s writing I wasn’t expecting, given the dense layering of purple prose in places, but Lawrence is even more direct, which is probably the reason LC is stuck on the banned books list. That and the conflict in LC was resolved by a pregnant Constance Chatterley running away to British Columbia—leaving behind a crippled aristocratic husband and a large estate—to marry a lumberjack. The solution to Diane’s problems were a bit more deus ex machina (He’s a Spaniard! Aristocratic even! Raised by wild desert tribesmen the way talking apes raised Tarzan Viscount Greystoke!) I was actually looking for this b/c the movie was my first introduction to the idea of anti-miscegenation laws and the Hayes code.

The two novels definitely don’t match up in the development of the female protagonists. Constance grows into herself, while Diane suffers a psychological break and decides she’s perfectly happy being carted all over the back of beyond by a guy whose idea of foreplay is making her cry. *Bleh* The Ahmed-Diane relationship in book has hallmarks of Stockholm syndrome, and he’s totally open about the fact he grabbed her off the street because he hates the English, and she was conveniently English, blue-blooded and vulnerable in one hot package. Freud must have had a field day with the horse breaking scene if he read a German translation. It’s interesting that the male author (Lawrence) writes about a woman finding more of herself and the female author (Hull) goes the subjugation route. Have to wonder what the rationale for each of them was since they were both seeing the same changes in society, broadly speaking.

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The Sheik, Changing Social Mores and French Algeria: A Semi-free Association Writing Exercise Part 1

October 15, 2008

Last week I was browsing YouTube for clips of Rudolf Valentino, which got me thinking about The Sheik, Hollywood blockbuster of 1921 and the movie that made him an icon. I first saw the film in my early teens and it went straight to my limbic system. Instead of New-Kids-on-the-Block, I was the classroom eccentric who was into Weird Al Jankovic, Dvroak’s New World Symphony and film star who’d been dead since my grandmother was 4 years old.

That phase passed, and I hadn’t really thought about either the film or actor in at least a decade, when the idea came to me that YouTube might be a source for bits of silent movies. I set out to look for Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera and The Shiek. Both films having been major productions in their day, I figured the odds would pretty good that clips from them as well as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis would be available. I needn’t have hedged my bets, though, since along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and a Danish film from 1923 I hadn’t heard of (Vampyr) were readily available, mostly as music video-style tributes. A couple were even offered as full length downloads posted by some serious connoisseurs.

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