Ten Years Ago: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

18 Jul

Max DeCurtins considers the “authenticity” of adapting children’s books and ponders the labor value of the Oompa Loompas in his re-view of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

charlie1

Tim Burton quite possibly may be every nerdy kid’s hero. He’s living proof that being quirky and different, while it may not win you many friends in high school, can in adulthood serve as the foundation for a wildly successful career with many devoted fans. His protagonists often count among their number the outcast, the downtrodden, the different. I’m certainly impressed by Burton, but I think certain of his movies stand a head taller than the rest. Some of Burton’s films feel contrived; others feel almost inexplicably inspired.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though not without its weaknesses, falls squarely on the inspired side of things and counts, I believe, as one of Burton’s best creations. The whole film shimmers with imaginative imagery in the unmistakably bizarre aesthetic that I expect from Burton, which along with Danny Elfman’s score and Johnny Depp in a lead role attracts most viewers. Freddie Highmore gives a wonderfully delicate and honest performance as Charlie Bucket, and the supporting cast turns in what I would call a solid ensemble performance. If anything, Depp’s performance, like his roles in the later Pirates movies, seems the most uneven—at times spot-on and other times deeply forced. What’s clear in the book is that Willy Wonka as a person is deeply eccentric; where Burton differs from Dahl is in his characterization of Willy Wonka’s eccentricity. Dahl’s Wonka generally comes off as sweetly mischievous and a jokester, while Burton’s version of the character seriously makes us wonder if Wonka might secretly be a psychotic serial rapist-murderer of the type usually depicted gruesomely on tiresome shows like Criminal Minds, CSI, Law and Order and NCIS. (Note to the crime show people: How many ways can there be to murder a person? Y’all have twisted imaginations, and it’s time for something else on TV.)

With Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it genuinely feels as though Burton has hit on the essence of Roald Dahl’s dark humor. Dahl’s literature for children, as most of us know from reading his books as children ourselves, tends to portray worlds where the natural balance of things is “off”—where children may model virtue better than the adults, or where magical and wild things happen. Already known for adapting Dahl (producing 1996’s James and the Giant Peach), Burton chose to continue his well-known collaborations with Johnny Depp and Danny Elfman, and in this movie the team definitely delivers. Beyond existing solely as a “more authentic” film realization of Dahl’s book (a little more on this later in the re-view), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is as relevant in a time of mind-boggling inequality and conflicting social and technological priorities as any movie we’re likely to see. I don’t remember exactly how I first saw the movie but I do know that at the time I saw it, I subconsciously tallied all the ways in which it differed from the movie I had grown up watching, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971. This is the movie most of us remember, so it deserves a few words.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may bear only a casual relationship to Roald Dahl’s novel, but by my count nobody has won the Internet with memes of Johnny Depp from his turn as the canny candymaker. It has Gene Wilder and a few nice melodies, but that’s about it. Though his name still appears under the screenplay credit, Dahl renounced his prior approval of the movie due to the massive changes to the story made by the producer, David Wolper, and the screenwriter, David Seltzer. The book, as we all know, makes only a brief mention of fizzy lifting drinks (certainly no secretive swig by Charlie and Grandpa Joe), contains only a passing reference to Slugworth, and absolutely never depicts Willy Wonka dressing down Charlie. I long felt that this plot twist, which assumed that Charlie was a sinner just like everybody else—and had him tempted and redeemed—smacked just a little too much of Christian theology, which is possibly the biggest offense Willy Wonka could have committed against Dahl’s story.

charlie2

Roald Dahl’s strong turn away from religion followed personal hardships he suffered in war and personal losses he endured in his family; in other words, he lost his faith the hard way. Growing up between the World Wars, Dahl saw the definitive shift of the twentieth century away from the world his parents had known, and towards something unknown and likely quite scary. Despite his lack of religious identification, Dahl’s works still exude a strong moralistic tone. I thus read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a morality play for the twentieth century, window-dressed in a world of candy inspired, apparently, by Cadbury’s influence in Dahl’s grammar school days. While the story doesn’t employ the historical device of morality plays, that of personifying virtues as characters, it does map four out of the five children rather handily to particular Deadly Sins: Augustus Gloop (gluttony), Violet Beauregarde (pride), Veruca Salt (greed), and Mike Teavee (sloth). The fact that the children are enabled or even encouraged by their parents shows that Dahl’s real criticism is reserved for the adults; what parent wouldn’t criticize another for standing idly by while their children get themselves into trouble? For that is, of course, exactly what the bratty children’s parents do; they watch their children get sucked up the chocolate pipe, or get blown up into a blueberry, or thrown in the garbage chute, or zapped into insignificance like so much Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

The moral criticism leveled by Charlie seemed obvious to me ten years ago, but it seems even more so now. Why? Ten years ago, as incredible as it sounds, smartphones did not exist. Now, we live in a time when almost every human, adult and child alike, carries a ridiculously powerful computer—and witness the result. We’ve all seen it: the parents absorbed by their smartphones while their children carry on, either throwing a fit or just straining for attention and interaction. Indeed, op-ed writers now fret over the ubiquity of smartphones and what they do to our social fabric. (Holy shit, I just realized that we’re living “The Game” episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Like, not even sort of. Literally.) There hasn’t been, I think, a more relevant time for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

As I re-viewed Charlie, I found myself struck by how strongly (perhaps unconsciously) Burton’s reading is suffused throughout with whispers of the Rust Belt. Charlie takes place in a factory town: it might be Youngstown, Ohio; Pontiac, Michigan; Liverpool, England; Gary, Indiana. Brownstones abound along tidy and well-defined city blocks. Charlie’s father worked for a time at a toothpaste factory, and Grandpa Joe once worked for Willy Wonka himself. If we can infer from Grandpa Joe’s history, Willy Wonka presumably employed much of the local population in his factory; with the increasing theft of his intellectual property, a concern of which we are all aware nowadays, he fired all his workers and—what luck—just happened to come across a tribe of people called Oompa Loompas during his travels, who just happened to stand to benefit from leaving their native land and coming to work in Willy Wonka’s factory. Suggestions of slavery aside (the first American edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I own, illustrates the Oompa Loompas as pygmy black people), the fact that Wonka’s closing of the factory probably plunged a lot of hardscrabble, blue-collar factory workers into unemployment and poverty—including Grandpa Joe—goes unmentioned. We get the sense that, whatever town this might be, it probably used to be more economically vibrant than it is now, and the factory is at least partially responsible.

The factory, in Burton’s imagination, is a cathedral: it stretches toward the sky in the manner of a grand Gothic structure, and Elfman’s score characterizes it with the sound of the organ. We frequently see the town from the vantage point of the top of the factory. The organ is not a friendly instrument; forbidding in physical stature and intimidating to play, in our cultural heritage it conjures thoughts of Dracula, scary cobweb-laced castles, and (in more unfortunate circles) the Phantom of the Opera. At the same time, the organ has a long history of glorious music inspiring awe and devotion. In a way, the factory represents a physical manifestation of the organ music that characterizes it; the smokestacks of the factory resemble the tall pipes of an organ. We frequently see the town from the perspective of high atop the factory, and it’s not hard to notice how small, lifeless, and insignificant the town seems by comparison. Burton and Elfman manage to elicit both aspects in their portrayal of Willy Wonka’s factory, a place that awes, commands dedication for its place in the town’s economic history, but also inspires fear.

charlie3

Both Willy Wonka and Charlie feature chocolate factories in their opening credits, but whileWilly Wonka shows us luscious, glimmering close-up footage of melted chocolate, Charlieshows us a wide-angle view of the manufacturing process: synchronized, faceless, unfriendly—accompanied as ever by Elfman’s slightly creepy, distorted mini-vocalizations. The closer we get to the shipping out of the packaged candy bars, the clearer it becomes that the synchronized retraction of the loading conveyors and the departure of the trucks represents the tireless and dehumanized process that keeps products flowing to the masses; the factory is not our friend. We also see perfectly-timed, robotic actions of a more human workforce—that of Mr. Salt’s nut factory—as they unwrap cases of Wonka bars in a high-volume, high-cost search for a Golden Ticket. When one of the women (and yes, they are all women) discovers the prize, a watchful Mr. Salt appears almost immediately to snatch the ticket from her grasp. The power of this scene lies not only in the pregnant visual of Mr. Salt snatching the Golden Ticket from the worker—a literal interpretation of wage theft from labor and the exploitative behavior of the 1%—but also in the irony that those sorts of factory jobs by and large don’t exist anymore, at least not in the United States. They exist, to some extent, in places like China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, countries whose human rights records our government routinely assails. Women’s professional and economic power, represented by Rosie the Riveter, is well-known to have played a major role in American wartime and post-war productivity (Dahl, informed by his experiences in the RAF during the Second World War, would certainly have been aware of the similar phenomenon in Britain). So the scene of Mr. Salt’s female factory workers shelling away tempts us to recall a positive piece of our history. Our present culture invites us, however, to read this scene as deeply flawed: the women aren’t doing skilled jobs, jobs that will lead them to positions of management and C-suite power later in their careers. Dahl only describes Mr. Salt’s method of finding the Golden Ticket for Veruca, which might lead a lesser filmmaker to think “OK, I’ll show a bunch of people unwrapping candy bars, and that will be that,” but Burton manages to make this brief scene full of relevant discomfort.

Earlier in this re-view I promised a (short) discussion of the idea of “Authenticity,” scare quotes and capitalization both very much intentional. Allow me to explain why. The most obvious reason for Charlie to have been made is that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factoryis a relic of a time when much less respect was given to the source material. Wolper, Stuart, et al made a movie that reflected the ethos of its time, and in their zeal to make a movie that they thought would appeal to the widest possible audience, they altered and added material ad nauseam. “Based on the book by” is, as Sam Seaborn of The West Wing put it, “a loophole so big you could race the America’s Cup through it.” With the advent of movie franchises based on ridiculously popular book series—I’m looking at you, Harry Potter andTwilight—the meaning of this phrase has, I would argue, narrowed significantly. The financial and critical success of movies adapted from books now depends as never before on the directors, producers, and screenwriter(s) not taking too many “based on” liberties, for fear of an angry Internet of fans with real and immediate power to affect the performance of the movie at the box office and beyond. Surely aware of this, and above all mindful of Dahl’s disowning of Willy Wonka, Dahl’s estate exercised a significant degree of artistic control over the development of Charlie, and were apparently highly pleased by the choice of Burton to direct the film, and secondary sources seem to indicate that the Dahl estate expressed a great deal of confidence in Burton’s understanding of Dahl’s work.

charlie4

The irony in all this is of course that Tim Burton fabricated material as much as David Wolper ever did, producing a movie whose level of “Authenticity” relative to its predecessor is, at the very least, open to debate. The book does not contain any backstory on Willy Wonka; certainly it doesn’t mention a controlling, emotionally cold father—though admittedly the late Christopher Lee fits the role perfectly. Moreover, Burton uses this as the principal explanation of Wonka’s character and personality. The implication here is of course that the source material, Dahl’s book, is lacking; Willy Wonka, apparently, does not have sufficient personality to make him into a functional character onscreen, therefore, a backstory is needed. What this does is impose a modern prejudice on a context to which it doesn’t apply; in the study of Western art music, at least, we have spent a large chunk of the twentieth century trying to get out of the business of doing just that, of grappling with the willingness of performers and scholars to dismiss or alter the very stuff of which they claimed to be the vanguard. And yet we cannot slavishly attempt to remove ourselves from the picture. Richard Taruskin, writing in On Letting the Music Speak for Itself, argues that “Authenticity stems from conviction,” which is gained through the lenses of culture and interpretation. Certainly we can all agree that when directors direct a movie, actors act in it, and studios agree to finance the whole operation to the tune of a hundred million dollars or more, they are doing it with conviction. Can we really call Charlie any more “authentic” than Willy Wonka? Perhaps not, at least not in the absolutist sense, but we can marvel at just how well Burton exemplifies Taruskin’s exhortation to performers of all stripes: “Let us indeed try out everything we may learn about in every treatise, every archival document, every picture, every literary description, and the more adventurously the better. But let us not do it in a spirit of dutiful self-denial or with illusions that the more knowledge one garners, the fewer decisions one will have to make.”

Ten years after its release, Burton’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory seems as perceptive as ever. What I missed the first time around is that Burton finds a way to make the sickly humorous aspects of Dahl both subtle and topical. On the surface of things, it’s still a delightful movie, but I realize that the depth is there, too. I’m also less impressed this time by most of the Oompa Loompa musical numbers, but more impressed by the overall non-vocal score. Chief among the concerns for vocal music composition is that the text being sung should be clearly understandable to the listener. Unfortunately a few of the songs, particularly Violet’s song about chewing gum, fail on this and get muddled by the instrumental arrangement. That said, Danny Elfman continues to show his grit as someone who thoroughly knows the ins and outs of his business, as he navigates skillfully between Bollywood and Beatles styles of music. I find it fascinating that journalists who have written about Elfman so frequently use superlatives like “unforgettable” to refer to his scores; it’s hardly accurate (how many of his themes can you hum from memory?), and at the same time it conveniently ignores a general cultural unwillingness to compensate musicians respectably for the production and use of their music. Elfman’s score for Charlie has all the manic touches that make his musical style such a good fit for Burton’s darkly weird aesthetic, includingostinati consisting entirely of the words “Oompa Loompa.” Upon re-view, it’s Elfman’s main themes, not the Oompa Loompa musical numbers, that remind me of the work he did for The Nightmare Before Christmas, which has got to be one of the best musical scores I’ve ever heard in my life.

And not only is Charlie perceptive in its realization of Dahl’s book; it’s appropriate to the issues we currently face as a country that must decide what kind of country it would like to be, and what it would like its relationship with other countries to be like. Charlie invokes issues very much relevant to current discourse: socioeconomic inequality, intellectual property, technological disruption, and instant gratification and overindulgence. It doesn’t explore these issues per se, but I think that if you watch closely enough, you’ll begin to see these extra layers everywhere. Definitely re-view this one for yourselves; it’s delectable.

charlie5

Free-Floating Thoughts

THAT PUPPET SHOW. So. Amazing.

Who blasts through the roof of someone’s home in a glass elevator and then starts rummaging through that person’s cabinets? That’s some fucked up shit.

Star Trek has Trekkies. The Grateful Dead have Deadheads. And Danny Elfman has…Elfmaniacs. Apparently this is actually a thing.

I was disturbed to learn in the process of writing this re-view that Warner Brothers had considered everyone from Christopher Walken to Brad Pitt for the role of Willy Wonka. Brad Pitt…really, Warner Brothers? Really?

Are the Oompa Loompas unionized?

Gene Wilder’s entrance in Willy Wonka is some totally able-ist shit. Stevi Costa, amirite?

How is it even possible that no adults found any of the Golden Tickets? I realize we have to take it as an article of faith for the story that only children happened to find the Golden Tickets, but this is quite possibly the bit of disbelief that proves hardest to suspend. Seeing as I’m about to teach myself statistics in advance of a class on machine learning and data mining, I guess I’ll find out just how ridiculous this bit of the story really is.

Saying that Tim Burton uses his visuals to critique capitalism and conformism is a little like saying that Kim Jong-un is batshit crazy; it speaks for itself. Burton’s visual aesthetic rarely fails to please, and here it almost positively demands to be viewed on a drug trip. I mean, come on—an edible paradise of delights in a riot of highly saturated colors, with a chocolate river and waterfall, and a UFO-looking contraption that extends its alien proboscises downward to suck up the chocolate? There’s a substance other than sucrose at work there, my friends. The visual splendor is all the more astounding considering that Burton used relatively few CGI effects.

The Bucket family subsists on cabbage soup, but after watching this movie several times, I kind of want to make something with a lot of cabbage in it. Is that weird?

charlie6

Ten Years Ago: Memories of Murder

17 Jul

Betsy Cass takes her [at least] fifth viewing of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and sings its praises while putting it up against the critically acclaimed (but not Betsy-acclaimed) David Fincher film Zodiac.

MOM1

It’s impossible to talk about my relationship with Memories of Murder without talking about its American analogue, David Fincher’s Zodiac. Murder, which follows the investigation into South Korea’s first major serial murder case, was made in 2003, released in the U.S. in 2005 and unseen by me until 2008. I stumbled across it during a brutally hot summer in my non-air-conditioned Chicago apartment while on a long kick of modern Asian dramas. (It was directly preceded by Syndromes and a Century, which wrongly led me to liking Weerasethakul, but that’s another story). It was the antithesis of how I had encountered Zodiac. I had read Robert Graysmith’s book on the topic half a dozen times as a kid, was an avid fan of Fincher and (at the time) was fairly enamoured with the main cast. So when early whispers stated that Zodiac was some sort of procedural masterpiece, my anticipation grew out of control. To this day, the film is still widely seen as one of the high points of Fincher’s career and the procedural crime genre. You can probably guess where this is going. Not only was I disappointed in the film itself, but I was left absolutely baffled by the high praise. Had I watched the same film as everyone else? To me, it seemed an utter failure: stiff, needlessly showy, overly long, comically miscast, and disastrously paced. So I logically assumed it was my fault. I assumed no film could ever live up to the level of anticipation I’d had. I vowed to rewatch it several years down the line when I’d have a clearer head. Surely, then I’d see what everyone else saw in it.

As it turns out, I didn’t need to. Fifteen months later, I encountered Memories of Murder. I suppose it’s unfair to call it the film Fincher should have made for two reasons. First, clearly Fincher was aiming for a very different type of film. Second, I wouldn’t want to discount the individual vision of Bong Joon-ho by implying he is in any way indebted to Fincher. He is not. But here’s the thing: He was right and Fincher was wrong. About everything. Normally I’d say that there are a variety of different ways to tell a story. There is room for more than one vision. But just because there is more than one right way, does not mean there is no wrong way. In this particular instance, not only was Fincher wrong, but Bong was as right as anyone could ever be.

I’ve seen Memories of Murder several times since 2008. In a lot of ways, that has wiped from my memory what I got from the film the first time around. Instead, I remember the circumstances much more specifically. The total surprise. The sweltering heat. The fact that it served as a mirror to Fincher’s fiasco. And that I loved it. But I may have been hard pressed to tell you why I loved it. It was a very definitive and visceral reaction, but it’s taken me seven more years to be able to step away from that love and try to understand why Bong Joon-ho’s film had such a hold on me.

Trying to sum it up today, the best I can conjure is that it is a masterpiece of tone. It only takes moments for the film to establish its mood. And it’s probably not what anyone who sits down to watch it for the first time expects. It is sad and it is funny and it is terribly unselfconscious. Somehow these elements never seem in conflict with each other. The film can shift from one to the other within seconds, while never feeling unnatural or forced. Everything feels real. And I don’t mean real as in a plausible theatrical representation of things we can accept as being real. I mean real real. Like you’re spying on somebody real. The kind you don’t see on screen because it might be too painful or too boring or awkward. But Bong Joon-ho is able to play on this, to create real tension, real pain and uncertainty, as well as to mine unbelievable humor.

Each time I watch it, I forget how hysterically funny Memories of Murder is. The humour is discarded in its climactic final moments, scenes so iconic that they can easily dominate one’s memory of the film. But for practically two hours, it maintains a level of absurd hilarity so consistent that I found myself wondering if it had been a comedy all along and I’d been too blind to realize. Song Kang-ho, in a career-best performance from a career of great performances, anchors the film with his droll, stubborn detective, misguided but determined. He mines the role for every bit of awkward, uncomfortably comic nuance available to him. But the humour throughout is not levity inserted to lighten the mood. Nor is it a pointed attempt to show that the characters deal with their trauma through gallows humor. It’s never at the expense of the characters or the deeply serious story that is being told. It’s funny because life is funny and weird and embarrassing, even when it’s terrifying and unfulfilling. The humor also falls away at the right moments, expertly ceding to the gravity and bleakness of certain scenes. These moments become so rattling and indelible because of their utter lack of levity. Bong uses this shift to achieve gripping gravity with his finale.

So if organic humor and realism are the strengths of Memories of Murder, it’s easy to see what sets it apart from Zodiac. Humorless, wooden and glossy with tightly controlled performances and choreographed camera work, Fincher’s film becomes an exercise in detachment. Bong Joon-ho, by contrast, uses naturalistic lighting and a jagged handheld camera to reflect the loose acting and the raggedness of the investigation. The murder scenes are sad and pathetic, more like actual crime scenes photos than I’ve seen anywhere else on film. I still can’t quite believe the shot where dozens of tiny flies scatter from a victim’s lifeless face when a flashlight is shined onto it. In hindsight, it’s an obvious and honest detail, but I’ve never seen anything that comes close to it anywhere else. Add to all this expert pacing, which never wastes a moment but never feels rushed. Bong lets the story expand and contract naturally, until it is almost unbearably taut in its climax, then finally relaxes into an uneasy conclusion in its last moments. It’s an emotionally immersive experience, far removed from the alienation of Zodiac.

MOM2

It might be easy to say that Bong is just a filmmaker who prefers naturalism over slickness, emotion over control, but a look at the rest of his films proves that not to be the case. In the years following Memories of Murder, he’s chosen to tell stories that are hugely divergent. Despite that, he’s always been capable of altering his visual language to match, while still maintaining some semblance of personal style. His immediate follow-up, the high-gloss satire The Host, was a massive departure in scale and style, and he perfected his take on sleek, big(ger) budget action with last year’s Snowpiercer. His natural instincts seems to be for show, which makes it all the more affecting when he puts them aside to quietly serve the story. It’s something he managed to do again several years later in Mother, a film so greatly indebted to to Memories that it plays like more than a spiritual sequel.

While I’m a fan of all of Bong’s films, I can’t imagine he’ll ever be able to top his breakthrough work. One of the chief delights of the film, even after seeing it several times, is its continued unexpectedness. There are still moments, big and small, that catch me off guard. Somehow it remains surprising and spontaneous. I don’t know if that’s something I can say for the rest of his films upon repeat viewing. I certainly can’t say it for Zodiac. Everything in this film is so alive that it almost feels as though it could change as I’m watching it. But I really wouldn’t want it to. John Peel was known to have said about the song “Teenage Kicks” that there was nothing that could be added or subtracted to it that could have improved it. I suppose that’s the way I feel about Memories of Murder. I wouldn’t change a thing. Maybe because of that, it hasn’t transformed itself for me in a major way since the first time I saw it, yet with every subsequent viewing, it still feels as though there are boundless possibilities within it. It is the height of craft producing the height of good damn art.

Stray Notes:

— Whenever I describe the film to anyone, I refer to it as like an American police procedural plus kicking. I will never get tired of watching the detectives rough up suspects with their feet instead of their hands.

— While it’s obvious that the subtleties of subtitles have a huge impact on how you experience a film, I’ve never given much consistent thought to it until watching this movie. I have the British version, which means the words knickers, wank, and arse appear repeatedly. Aside from the delightful cultural mismatch, it makes me wonder what I’m gaining or losing in other subtitle translations.

— Never stop working together, Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho. This is some Mifune/Kurosawa level collaboration.

— As someone who knows admittedly little about Korean culture, I’m still surprised to see such frank discussion of certain proclivities in this movie. I can’t tell if this is groundbreaking or completely normal.

— It would be too much to say that other films are ripping off Memories of Murder, but there have been a remarkable number of very similar works since it premiered, stretching from Zodiac all the way to this year’s Marshland. Of course, they all pale in comparison. Everyone can really stop trying. They’re never going to improve on this one.

— Speaking of Zodiac, I did end up rewatching it about a year ago. I still think it’s a piece of junk (well-made junk). What is Robert Downey, Jr. even doing in that movie? That said, the scene at Lake Berryessa is still one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen.

— This is going to sound like a slight, but I swear it’s not: I got sort of a Life on Mars vibe from this film the most recent time I watched it. This may just be a result of both featuring hilarious beatings of innocent suspects.

— Of all the inappropriate humor in the film (worrying about a suspect’s blood getting on your boots, checking guys out at a sauna in an attempt to find a “hairless” suspect), one cop after another falling down a steep hill on the way to the first crime scene is my all-time favorite. Sets the tone of the film perfectly.

Sight & Sound, which has impeccable taste, named this one of the 30 best films of the last decade. Cahiers du Cinema, who I’ve never agreed with, chose Bong Joon-ho’s follow up,The Host, as their fourth best movie of the decade. While it’s a good film, I personally find it to be his career low.

MOM3

Ten Years Ago: Murderball

16 Jul

Stevi Costa digs into her dissertation topics with Murderball, finding that, in terms of representing disability, the film both reinforces and unravels the ideology of ability.

murderball1
I’ve spent the past two or three months doing nothing but reading and writing about disability theory for my dissertation, so I thought, sure, let’s re-view Murderball, the 2005 documentary about the U.S. Quad Rugby Team and their quest to win the gold at the 2004 Paralympic Games.

I’ve recently been writing a lot about representations of disability and grappling with how certain representations of disability reinforce the ideology of ability, while others seek to unravel it. Murderball, as a film, does a little of both.

It is most certainly made for a non-disabled audience. The opening shot of the film shows rugby player Mark Zupan disrobing. The camera lingers on Zupan pulling off his bed clothes to put on his workout gear, all while sitting in his chair. It focuses of Zupan taking off his pants to reveal his legs, which one might describe as atrophied as a result of his paralysis. There’s no sound playing over the scene. It seems distant and clinical. It is as though the audience is a doctor observing a patient, and it assumes that the relationship is one of an able-bodied observer studying a patient with a disability.

But this opening shot also establishes that this film won’t spend all of its time replicating this uncomfortably medical gaze when it holds focus on Zupan’s tattooed leg. One of his calves is nearly entirely covered in a black tribal design. We never get an answer in the film as to whether Zupan got this tattoo before or after his accident, but either way the tattoo reinforces his toughness, his masculinity. (Either he was badass enough before the accident to withstand the pain of a calf tattoo, or he has badass enough after the accident to spend four hours joking with a tattoo artist about whether or not he could feel anything happening at all.) The tattoo lets us wonder about Zupan. It seems unexpected on a disabled body and therefore allows an able-bodied audience to read Zupan as a person, rather than a patient or a case file.

Murderball spends most of its time treating the rugby players like athletes, which are the parts of the film I really like. I love watching the shots of the guys at practice, or in competition, and hearing them talk strategy about the game. The film’s primary narrative tracks the US team’s relationship with its former coach Joe, a former paralympian who defected to coach the Canadian national team after he was fired from Team USA in the late 1990s. I like knowing that the U.S. Quad Rugby Team won all 11 international wheelchair rugby competitions up to the time of filming. And I especially like knowing that the game of wheelchair rugby (or “murderball,” as it used to be called) is designed to account for individual experiences of disability. Because quadriplegics are classified differently depending on where the spine was broken (which determines mobility), quad rugby players are each assigned a point value based on their level of mobility. More mobile players have higher point values (Zupan is a 3-point player in the film), and less mobile players have lower point values. A team cannot put more than 8 points in play at any time so that each team has a balanced level of abilities on the court, and so that all players are guaranteed court time, regardless of their level of mobility. The game recognizes that experiences of disability are individual, and all of those experiences can make of a valuable athlete. I find the game of quad rugby itself, and the narrative about athletic competition, to be the parts of this film that work against the ideology of ability because it shows disabled people as capable, adaptive, and valuable human beings. (The U.S. Team takes the bronze at the 2004 Paralympics. Canada takes the silver, and New Zealand comes from behind to take the gold.)

murderball2

But there are other aspects of the film that don’t do much to counteract a preference for able-bodiedness. In order to satisfy the medically trained curiosity of an able-bodied audience, the filmmakers choose to interview each athlete to describe what I’ll call the “How I Got in This Chair Story.” The chair stories, on the one hand, show that disability is a fluid state that any person could arrive in at any time, which does some work to rethink what disability means, but they also draw on audience pathos in ways that are meant to make able-bodied viewers feel sorry for the quad rugby players, and then be inspired by them when we see them do athletic things. The chair stories make the bodies of the quads intelligible to the audience, reassuring able-bodied viewers that they’re fortunate to not be the guys in those chairs. During the telling of each chair story, the filmmakers show “before” photos of the men as children or teenagers, standing upright on two legs. These images are troubling because they reinforce the narrative of disability as decline.

Interestingly, the chair stories in Murderball also serve another function: they produce disabled masculinity, which really is the core of what the film expresses as a whole. Disabled masculinity is a hyperstylized performance that seems compensatory by design. I call these performances compensatory because the rugby players are shown throughout the film to be participating in masculine behavior: playing poker, drinking, talking about sex, playing sports, etc. But these men perform their masculinity in overt and exaggerated ways, which seems to frame the performance of their gender identity as compensating for their physical bodies. The chair stories aid in the development of this kind of masculinity. With the exception of Coach Joe and the team’s one quad amputee, all of the U.S. quad rugby players became disabled as the result of an accident associated with masculine behavior. While Joe and the amputee became wheelchair users due to childhood illnesses (polio and meningitis, respectively), every other member of Team USA became disabled after a fist fight or a car accident (usually after a night of drinking) or some other accident involving an extreme sport (i.e. motocross, motorcycle racing, etc). The craftsman who makes the customized chairs for the rugby court calls his creations “Mad Max Wheelchairs.” His alignment with the hypermasculine post-apocalyptic car-modding franchise is not an accident, as the cars in Mad Max are also external signifiers of masculine power. So, too, are the murderball chairs.

Further, the filmmakers devote an entire section of the film to how these men handle relationships with other people. The players comment about rejecting help when kind strangers offer it. I don’t deny that strangers offering to help persons with disabilities in public spaces is an ableist response, but it also bespeaks a desire for kindness and empathy that social justice models preach. The players’ rejection of this assistance is well within their rights, but they frame it as an affront to common sense and their own ability to complete tasks, as personal, rather than a cultural precedent. They actively provoke fights at bars, noticing how other men shy away from getting in fights with them. “What? You’re not gonna hit a kid in a chair?” one player relays, “Hit me. I’ll hit you back.” These incidents, coupled with the way the men describe their relationships with women, demonstrate that this particular group of disabled men seems to compensate for their disability by overperforming masculinity.

This tends to work out in their favor when it comes to sexual and romantic relationships. As one player observes, “Women are not threatened by the guy in the chair.” So girls will come up to them in bars and mercilessly flirt, driven by the curiosity of what it would be like to fuck a guy in a chair. All of the players note that all flirtatious interactions they have with women eventually arrive at the question of whether or not their dicks work. Mark Zupan’s girlfriend, Jess, relays that she thinks girls are attracted to quad guys because it allows them to fulfill their mothering instincts. While disabled/non-disabled relationships do certainly require caregiving (as do any romantic relationships, by the way), Jess’ framing of her relationship with Zupan as fulfilling a mothering instinct is problematic. Perhaps without meaning to, Jess is infantilizing her boyfriend, suggesting to the able-bodied viewer that he cannot function in a romantic relationship in the same way as an able-bodied adult man. Her framing, of course, stands at odds with Zupan’s own declaration of his sexual prowess. “People ask how we do it,” he says. “I’ll tell you this: guys in chairs usually love to eat pussy.”

murderball3b

The film discusses each player learning to become sexually active again after their accidents, and I found this portion of the film to be really well handled. Rather than infantilizing these men or treating their sexuality as curiosity (which the players’ stories about girls in bars demonstrate), their honest and frank discussions of what it was like to masturbate for the first time with new hand mobility or the first time they had sex as a quad or what positions they prefer felt like the men were being fully humanized and understood as people, rather than medical subjects. Of course, these discussions of sex also reinforce their virility and masculinity, a la Zupan’s comment about eating pussy. I highly doubt there would be a similar discussion in a film about quad women, as women are expected to be passive sexual partners, not active ones. By talking about sex, the rugby players reclaim their status as active sexual partners in the eyes of able-bodied viewers, who read their disability as lack.

Murderball’s secondary narrative is the story of Keith, a new quadrupalegic, going through rehab, learning how his new body works, and discovering murderball. As Keith is introduced, his mother says of his motocross accident, “His whole life has been on wheels. Now one of Keith’s favorite things hurt him.” Keith’s mom apparently misses out on the fact that her son still gets to be on wheels—just different ones than before. The filmmakers certainly don’t miss out on the irony of this comment, though, showing a scene of Keith wheeling through the rehab center alongside images of his old motocross days. Keith’s story demonstrates that recovery and rehabilitation is a long process. Even though Keith has only been in the facility for four months before he is released, he talks about other patients post-spinal cord injury who have been there for months. The nurses, whom he likes to flirt with, give him a farewell card that he has difficulty opening. He refuses their help politely when they offer, and the camera lingers on the long process of Keith opening the envelope. On his return home, Keith speaks openly about how upset he is that he can’t use the space in the same was as he could when he wasn’t a wheelchair user. His mother tries to remind him that he’ll adjust, and Keith tells her that he knows he will, be he can still be mad about it. Keith meets Mark Zupan at the rehab center when Zupan comes to talk about the Paralympics. Watching Keith’s eyes light up when he learns about quad rugby is absolutely the best moment of this film.

For me, Keith’s story makes visible that rehab doesn’t magically happen overnight, and that adjusting from able-bodied life to disabled life is difficult because of how entrenched the ideology of ability is in our day to day lived experiences, from the construction of buildings to our social responses. And when Keith learns about murderball, he recognizes that there are things his new body can do that his old body couldn’t, and that’s a really cool moment to witness. Keith is also totally adorable when he asks to test out Zupan’s competition chair, and immediately wants to practice ramming into Zupan. The hospital staff tells him no because of liability, but Zupan lets him give his chair a “love tap” and Keith is hooked. The end titles tell us that Keith is saving up to purchase his first custom murderball chair. Even though Keith’s story is still laced with rhetorical tools that draw the sympathy of the able-bodied audience and reinforce the ideology of ability, I also find his narrative to be really honest and refreshing—perhaps because Keith doesn’t participate in the same compensatory disabled masculinity that the rest of the quad rugby players do. The film constructs him differently: as an individual, rather than a stereotype.

(L-r) TOM HARDY as Max Rockatansky and CHARLIZE THERON as Imperator Furiosa in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' action adventure

(L-r) TOM HARDY as Max Rockatansky and CHARLIZE THERON as Imperator Furiosa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure “MAD MAX: FURY ROAD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. from Warner Bros. media site

Ten years ago, I likely watched Murderball more like the average able-bodied viewer. I would have found these dudes inspirational, or some iteration thereof. But now, as a disability scholar who is nonetheless able-bodied, I see the films representational contradictions more clearly. To compensate for how they are viewed as disabled, the players and the filmmakers are complicit in constructing these disabled athletes as hypermasculine. This compensatory masculinity is problematic because it makes these rugby players into paragons of what quad men ought to be or do, which undercuts the game’s own emphasis on individual disabled experience. It also, by extension, creates a representational problem for women with disabilities, who become more enfeebled by the invocation of hypermasculinity within disabled representation. The cultural caveat to this, however, is another character from the very franchise invoked in the description of the rugby chairs: Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa.

Furiosa, in 2015, does what Murderball does not: creates a compelling portrait of an amputee without invoking the sensationalist rhetorics of pity/empathy, or using the medical gaze to make her body knowable. Furiosa has no “How I Lost My Arm” story. There are no shots that linger on Furiosa doing things to show that she can do them. She simply does them. She exists as a strong woman in a man’s world, and feels neither the need to act like the hypermasculine war boys (the critically disabled subjects who emerge from such poisonous ideology), nor like the patriarchy’s visions of femininity as depicted in the wives she’s working to free.

In 2015, I really want to see a film about disabled female athletes living their lives without dwelling on the narrative of how they became disabled. The only women in Murderball are Zupan’s girlfriend Jess and Keith’s mother . . . and the few female amputee soldiers at Walter Reed Medical Center in the final shot of the film where the U.S. Team introduces the game to newly disabled soldiers (whose femaleness is subsumed by their identity as soldiers).

And if I’m making a wishlist about how we ought to represent disability, I’d also like to see more representations of disabled people of color. Murderball has one shot of a black quad rugby player. He is presumably on the U.S. team, but we never see him play and the only thing we hear him talk about is his preferred sexual position. Murderball’s representation of disability is limited to hypermasculine, straight, white men, and, while that may also be true of the sport, as a documentary, it tends to support the ideology of ability just a bit more than it works to undo it.

P.S. This documentary is not well made in the aesthetic sense. It looks like a piece of shit. And I think its utter lack of concern for aesthetics aids in its hypermasculine ethos.

P.P.S. Regarding Zupan and his leg tattoo, shortly after Murderball came out, Zupan was a guest on L.A. Ink. He got his other leg tattooed and did, in fact, joke with the tattooist about not being able to feel anything during his session.

murderball5

Ten Years Ago: War of the Worlds

4 Jul

Erik Jaccard, one of 10YA’s A-listers, returns from a re-view hiatus (those dang dissertations!) with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, addressing European colonialism, the theory of evolution, and the challenges of adapting H.G. Wells for modern times.

wotw1

War of the Worlds

Dir. Steven Spielberg

Before I’d even started this re-view I was already patting myself on the back. I’d decided that after my first rather scathing re-view of a poorly adapted H.G. Wells novel (see my March 2012 piece on Simon Wells’ The Time Machine), I was going to let my current offering—Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds—breathe more freely and be itself. And by that I meant mostly that I wasn’t going to hammer it for straying too far from its source material, which I’d been unable to do on the prior occasion. This time around, to my surprise, I found myself wishing the film had strayed from the original material, tied as I believe that material is to its original historical and intellectual contexts. So now I find myself with a hand frozen in mid-back pat because I’m not sure whether I accomplished what I set out to do. By the end of this re-view the answer will be clearer, but that hand will also be firmly back in my pocket.  

I kind of wish I had a cool personal story to relate about the time I first saw War of the Worlds, but I don’t. When the film was released in the summer of 2005 I was living in Prague and I have a distinct memory of  the film’s poster plastered around the city’s many metro stations: Tom Cruise holding a terrified Dakota Fanning, both of whom are set against the an ominous scorched earth in the clasp of an insidious alien claw. In fact, more than anything I remember the Czech title for the film—Válka Svĕtů—because it produced, as all foreign posters for Hollywood films tend to do, a kind of uncanniness in my linguistic receptors. Here was an international symbol in Tom Cruise translated into the local vernacular, and the disjunction seemed amusing. Also, I recall noting the Czech phrase’s brevity: Czech doesn’t have articles, so everything is boiled down to two words: war and worlds. Anyway, I’m rambling to make up for the fact that I don’t really have anything to say. I didn’t see it then and only first watched on DVD later in the fall. As I recall, I was distinctly underwhelmed at first viewing, mostly because nearly everything about it seemed at best passable, aside from maybe the visual effects, which had clearly been one of the production’s biggest expenditures. [It was later nominated for all those sound and visual effects editing Academy Awards that no one really cares about and it lost all three to King Kong]. I was bored by the personal drama between the Cruise character and his children and, having seen the 1953 adaptation, I mostly waited for the part where the humans get melted by alien heat rays, as that’s the bit which had stuck with me as a kid. Aside from that, the entire affair was fairly forgettable and I honestly didn’t think much about it afterward.

I can see now that this was a little unfair of me. At that point in my life I’d decided that I didn’t appreciate Steven Spielberg’s consistent need to deflect darkness in the name of syrupy sentimentality and I think my reaction to War of the Worlds was immediately colored by an expectation that this film would also conform to that model. It did—it does—but it’s actually significantly darker than most Spielberg films not called Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan and it admits of little heroism and scant opportunities for resolution or redemption.  On one level at least, this adaptation then wants to move away from the stupidly enduring optimism of the alien invasion genre, which Wells essentially invented, and which would insist that humans always find a way to defeat their seemingly invincible attackers. War of the Worlds doesn’t really hold out hope that humans will save the day. Instead, the dominant emotional registers in which its larger drama operates are confusion, bewilderment, and numb trauma. No one knows what is going on and no one is going to fix anything. As is the case with most catastrophe narrative, all you can do is stay alive. If you maintain a sense of decency along the way, all the better (most don’t). I also remember thinking back then that I didn’t find the film’s visual effects impressive in comparison to the ongoing parade of summer blockbusters currently on offer. Watching it this time around I realized that this wasn’t so much the issue as that the best of the visual work is confined to the film’s first hour or so, after which the plot slows considerably to accommodate some of Wells’ original exposition and character development. While the fact that the second half of the film drags may have something to do with my perception that the whole hadn’t been much good, I’m quite certain that the finale did. I’m going to say more about it below and thus won’t get into it in too much detail here, but I’ll simply say that the deus ex machina invoked in order to bring War of the Worlds to a close beggars belief and seems far too much like contrived narrative closure intended to help us feel just a little bit better in a darkened world. I think I blamed Spielberg for this in 2005, not understanding that it was actually Wells who had conspired to bring down the aliens by such obvious means.

wotw2

Rather than continuing to grasp at reasons for my initial disdain, however, I’d like to think through my reaction to the film this time add a great deal more context and analysis that I probably wouldn’t or simply couldn’t have undertaken in 2005.  In doing so I feel like I have to start with that first re-view of The Time Machine, which I argued wastes a number of profitable opportunities to engage with the socio-political critique embedded in its source material, and thus to deliver on the narrative and critical possibilities of an adaptation to twenty-first century circumstances. This was particularly relevant given the film’s shift in location from England to the USA, where a surging gap in the distribution of wealth was beginning to create conditions similar in ways to those seen in late Victorian and Edwardian eras. As I said then, I wished that the film had been able to balance both the romantic and scientific elements that make up its generic coding and that it could then have done more with the critique implied by the ‘science’ part. In other words, I wanted less romantic schmaltz, less showy digital effects, and more contact with the book. With War of the Worlds, however, I had the opposite reaction: nearly everything about the film seems dated or dysfunctional to me now, and I think a large part of the problem is that it sticks too closely to the book. WhereasThe Time Machine supplies an elastic model for critiquing class relations which I thought could use updating, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remains trapped in the specificity of its late nineteenth century intellectual and historical contexts of its source material.

Two of these—Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and the emergence of large-scale European colonialism—are especially important for understanding Wells’ War of the Worlds. It’s common knowledge that the theory of evolution revolutionized how Europeans perceived their role in the world. No longer could humans—and in a colonial context ‘humans’ means Europeans—assume that their place atop a global pecking order had occurred because they were special or favored by a higher power. Rather, evolution relativizes and subverts social hierarchy insofar as it links the entire species to a common point of origin, thereby making us different effects of the same initial cause. This has the power to undermine colonial power relations because it makes the domination of one group of humans by another a blatantly immoral exercise in arrogance. Yet, the theoretical flattening out of the human ‘races’ by virtue of a shared biological origin did not stop Europeans from attempting to dominate other human beings. Instead, it just provoked a major adjustment in ideology: because they were, by the nineteenth century, clearly more developed in material terms, Europeans came to think of themselves as the most highly evolved of the humans, a notion which then worked to justify the de facto enslavement of ‘inferior races.’ On the one hand, structuring the world as such meant that land could be expropriated, resources could be extracted, and free labor could be acquired; on the other, Europeans could tell themselves that they were doing this for the good of those inferior races. After all, being lowlier, so-called savage peoples required lifting up into the light of the civilized world and Europeans were the ones who, as they told it themselves, had been handed this heavy burden.

However, one of the most problematic things about the theory of evolution is that it creates a sliding scale along which species/peoples can rise or fall depending on their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. This implication provoked considerable anxiety among metropolitan Europeans in the Victorian era, accustomed as they were to thinking of history in terms of the eighteenth century’s notion of progressive enlightenment. Suddenly, the new scientific dispensation implied that being at the top of the pecking order didn’t mean you would stay there permanently. Evolution didn’t just mean ‘progress,’ as it could also signify digression, devolution, and especially degeneration, which was a particularly vexing concern in fin de séicle Britain. To the late Victorian world the very existence of ‘inferior’ indigenous peoples proved this troubling suggestion and opened up the possibility that those atop the current power structure (in this case, the British) could either fall back into an earlier state of savagery (the premise behind The Time Machine) or have their own position usurped by a more highly evolved species. Enter Wells’ Martians, who capitalize on the latter anxiety precisely by tipping the scales and ironically transforming the mighty British ‘race’ into a textbook colonial victim.

wotw3

The very idea of a Martian invasion of Earth purposefully inverts the scenario of the European colonial encounter, situating the Europeans as natives and the Martians as their technologically advanced natural superiors. Wells’ scenario makes this clear in nearly every way. The Martians have a more complex and developed intelligence precisely because they have been evolving for longer. His writer protagonist describes Martian anatomy in intimate detail, noting that their bodies have atrophied at the expense of their much larger brains (another trope repeated from The Time Machine). While this makes them vulnerable physically it makes them imposing technologically, and their prowess in this arena far outstrips that of their human counterparts. The Martian war-machines (the infamous ‘tripods’) tower over human armaments and reduce them to smithereens either by crushing them or blowing them to bits with a near-invincible heat ray. The desire of the lowly Europeans not to be extinguished is reduced to the image of a wooden spear bouncing meekly off the reinforced armor of a tank. In the novel Wells makes direct reference to this context when he draws the reader’s attention to the similarity between the brutal violence of the Martian colonial invasion and that of Britain’s extermination of indigenous Tasmanians earlier in the century:

And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars…And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

The critique of colonialism outlined here in the form of the Golden Rule—don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you—forms the backbone of Wells’ critique of the social and political status quo of late nineteenth century Britain. By inverting the relationship we are meant to imagine what it would be like on the receiving end the colonial brutality, a turn in perspective which would seemingly rebut facile ideological arguments for European domination and tacitly admit to the same conclusion reached by Joseph Conrad’s Marlow inHeart of Darkness: Under their darker skin and beyond their seemingly strange customs, the ‘savages’ are the same as us. Therefore, so the logic goes, in killing and exploiting them, we are essentially killing and exploiting ourselves.

The main point of this digression is to suggest that the entire story carries the weight of this contextual  baggage and, no matter what you do with the bare bones of the idea, the outline of the original context will always be there because it’s built into the narrative fabric: the seemingly unstoppable invasion of a technologically superior species; the symbolic transformation of the conquerors into the conquered; the breakdown of civilized order into barbaric chaos; the threatened degeneration or extinction of the human species. This narrative shape is tied to the historical context in which it emerged. The aliens invade as a giant land army because they are modeled after nineteenth century military models; they lust after our resources the way they do (nakedly, cruelly, and openly) because they are essentially the inverse representation of European greed in the nineteenth century; they come bearing superior technology because in 1900 it was thought that all you needed to ‘win’ a war was better soldiers and bigger guns. But while the story has stayed the same, the framework in which we receive it has evolved. Capitalism works differently now, as does colonialism and racism. Science is light years beyond where it was at the turn of the twentieth century. We haven’t moved beyond any of these things, of course, but they aren’t the same either. This means that any successful adaptation of the story made more than a hundred years later will need to provide new contexts in which to understand the form, new anxieties and fears which can drive motivations and lend a Martian invasion significance in the twenty-first century.

wotw4

My problem with Spielberg’s film is that because it lacks the guts and bravado to take on this challenge, the end result is uneven and oftentimes frustrating.  Rather than creating, or at least referencing, a new context in which an alien invasion might be made meaningful, it A) retains the shape of the story without fulling committing to a frame of reference such that it can only B) play up the sentimental family drama in the film’s foreground. For clarity, I’ll discuss these things in order.

First, the story. While scriptwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp change a little here and a little there, mostly in terms of updating the setting and background to the twenty-first century, they retain the majority of the earlier story’s basic plot. Like Wells’ novel, the story opens with a narrator (Morgan Freeman, in full God/Father Time mode) who offers a prologue to the attack: hundreds of thousands of miles away aliens have been patiently watching us and coveting our green and bountiful planet, waiting for the opportune moment to strike and take it for themselves (the notion that these aliens might be Martians is left out of the new account, probably because we now know that there isn’t much life on Mars). One ordinary day a series of freak lightning storms strike across the globe, acting as de facto electromagnetic pulses and shutting down terrestrial communication networks and all electric machinery. At first humans—and in this case, a working-class neighborhood in the greater NYC area—are nonplussed by the seeming regularity of the lightning: it strikes over and over in the same spot, spread over hundreds of different spots. Curiosity and awe soon turn to horror as the lightning strikes activate massive metallic fighting machines piloted by—we learn later—alien beings intent on either destroying or enslaving (though mostly destroying) all of humankind. Naturally, faced with the blunt terror of the alien attack, in which hundreds are vaporized by seemingly invincible alien heat-rays and highways, houses, and cars are destroyed as though they were toys—human societies descend into chaos. The military is called in and their attempts to repel the attack prove fruitless—the alien technology is far superior. Chased over hill and dale and slaughtered wherever they try to flee or hide, humans are reduced to cowering sub-creatures at the mercy of their new alien overlords. Finally, after days of slaughter, during which time humans also witness the aliens beginning to terraform the planet with human blood and tissue, the alien crafts mysteriously weaken and become strangely vulnerable. At this point the narrator concludes the tale with the underwhelming simple explanation that, while the invaders were prepared to handle us, they were not prepared for the earth’s myriad microorganisms, which make them sick, allowing us to shoot them with our previously useless rocket launchers and ultimately save the day. Humanity escapes to live another day, hopefully chastened and unwilling to return to their erstwhile state of complacency.

As I have explained above, this general outline makes a lot of sense when read in a specific context and it still resonates most vividly within a particular historical conjuncture. However, this does not mean it couldn’t work actively in others. The filmmakers have stated publically that part of their intention with the film was to express a certain sense of exhaustion and helplessness in the traumatized years following the attacks of September 11, 2001. I see this operating at a distance in the film’s script, which has Cruise’s son ask confusedly whether what’s happening is the fault of ‘the terrorists.’ The change of location to New York City also reinforces this potential resonance, as does, I suppose, a general sense of confusion in the wake of catastrophe. But these scattered indicators are really all we have to go on and I don’t think I’d be alone in suggesting that, if 9/11 is meant to be primary historical reference point, there is too little in the film to make this clear or purposeful as an interpretive tool. What we’re left with, then, is a whole lot of destruction and despair that doesn’t seem to be grounded in anything. The disaster thus becomes curiously empty and incomplete, an effect without an acknowledged source code to which we can trace its form, and in reference to which we might hear that form speak meaningfully. A lot of large-scale alien invasion narratives also suffer from this problem, but some of these tend to deflect the emptiness at the center of their premise by playing up both the adventurous and comical potential of their story.Independence Day, for example, features an invasion scenario that is generally the same as Wells’ but does so with the added bonus of enigmatic characters, splashy acts of unlikely heroism and intelligence, and silly but tension-draining one-liners. War of the Worlds does what many would consider the admirable thing by going out of its way to break the Independence Day mold; no major landmarks are destroyed, there is no comic relief or romantic sub-plot; it isn’t made immediately clear that the humans will likely triumph. However, while it evades these clichés, it doesn’t fully commit to the darkness either.

This has two noticeable effects as far as I could tell this time around. The first is that it puts far too much pressure on the foregrounded interpersonal dimension of the story, which follows a divorced, working-class man’s attempt to reconnect with his kids and develop into a responsible person and father. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a longshoreman working on the docks in the greater New York City area. As we learn, he is somewhat estranged from his children, who live with their mother (Miranda ‘Don’t call me Eowyn’ Otto) and her new husband, some hedge fund manager who seems responsible and respectable and level-headed; in other words, all the things that Ray is supposedly not. We’re mostly left to fend for ourselves in determining why the kids are put off by him, though it’s implied that he’s selfish and irresponsible and therefore not a good father or husband.. He has clearly alienated his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), who gets to rehearse all of the ‘why weren’t you there?!?’ anger requisite for the jilted son role. His daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is more forgiving but seems written mostly to be rescue bait, precocious child, or close-up shot fodder for moments when we’re all supposed to be really, really scared. The gravitas of this more private situation hinges on Ray’s ability to be there for, and ultimately connect with both in the face of tragedy. As Robby notices, Ray’s attitude for much of the story seems to be a mix between ‘Oh my god, I want to save myself but I have these kids to take care of!’ and ‘Oh my god, if I don’t get these kids back to their mom alive, she’s gonna kill me!’ And I suppose the point of this is for Ray to realize that he is connected to the kids in a fundamental way, that they aren’t just little weird objects who get dropped off with him every few weeks. His assumed complacency about them is then mirrored in the larger complacency of the society at large, which was too consumed with itself to notice disaster looming. Thus, the personal dimension actually becomes the missing grounding for the attack, which, severed from any other identifiable context, ends up as a metaphor for one character’s redemption. So, even though millions die and this massive military metaphor runs rampant across the world, Ray proves his worth to this kids and all is forgiven. As in so many of Spielberg’s films, something worthwhile prevails, but at the expense of turning the darkness into a means to an end.

wotw5

This leads to my second (and final) argument, which is that, because the film makes the metaphorical layer of the macro scale stuff (the invasion, etc) subsidiary to the character drama, it loses out on the ability to say something interesting about both. And this is where I come back around to the tone of my earlier re-view of The Time Machine. I don’t wish thatWar of the Worlds had been closer to the book necessarily, but I wish it had been closer to the world. The form of Wells’ story, which it consents to reproduce, has immense potential to comment on global concerns, which it can other ignore or engage. In 2005 the United States, where the producers choose to set the film, was in the second year of the War in Iraq and the fourth year of the ongoing ‘War on Terror.’ As much as ideologues and apologists would like us to believe that both of these conflicts are/were about defending or promoting democracy or freedom, it seems clear now that we’ve had a decade to think it over that what democracy and freedom mean in the context of a massive invasion and occupation is never cut and dried. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was, as many have noted, a land and wealth grab on a massive scale [though the land part was temporary]. While it didn’t follow the same route as nineteenth century colonialism, it produced some of the same effects: mass civilian deaths, the shifting of power from one group to another, the extraction of resources, and particularly the freeing up of capital. This latter effect is what freedom and democracy mean in the contemporary world; if individuals become free to open a business or worship as they please or decide between MacDonald’s and Burger King, this is a secondary effect of the fact that capital has been freed first. However, the freeing of capital tends to be a tremendously disruptive process, particularly for societies which see older, established cultural forms and traditions upended by the new movement of ideas and products and paradigms across formerly solid border. Predictably, many resist, and must then be forced to comply.

In her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, the journalist Naomi Klein argues that what happened in Iraq was the perfection of a model of social ‘shock therapy’ which had been deployed strategically in a variety of locations since at least the 1970s. The premise, borrowed from Cold War-era experiments in brainwashing and personality disintegration, was that shocking a population sufficiently can induce a kind of traumatized paralysis. While in such a state, people are liable to agree to or ignore a variety of things, not the least of which is the fact that the fundamental reality of their world is being changed under their feet. If some resist, and some always do, you brand them enemies, capture them, and shock them some more in the form of torture. By the time you’re done the world they see is the world you want them to see.

The fact that War of the Worlds consciously ignores the world which it otherwise accepts as a default reality only says to me that it was not willing to take a risk. It’s not as though Wells’ scenario wouldn’t work in this new context. The very fact that the filmmakers acknowledge that they’re dealing with catastrophe and trauma only makes it clearer to me that one could combine the colonial critique inherent in the original with a new colonial context by way or producing a filmic document that was at least more specific. If the film forces us to occupy another position—that of the object of mass violence—then it seems logical that we occupy something more direct and relevant to our experience than a faded historical analogy (Wells’ Tasmanians) or a complete abstraction. It’s very difficult for me to look at human beings in the film running away from violence in frightened chaos and see Wells’ exterminated Tasmanians. At best I get a muddied picture of ‘natives’ doing the same, probably culled from depictions I’ve seen in other films. However, somehow it’s much easier for me to put myself in the shoes of someone similar cowering in a Baghdad doorway while American fighter jets scream by overhead, dropping bombs in their wake. If the film is about shock and awe and terror, specifically the terror of being the lowly  hunted, it makes sense to me to give that shape some shade and outline, rather than reducing it a vague shadow because we simply don’t want to acknowledge that we’re the aliens and that we’re still invading, that we’ve always been invading. Ultimately, when the alien hand reaches out from its destroyed war machine at film’s end, grimacing and evil and monstrous, we’re supposed to catch a glimpse not of a real creature from another world, but rather of some form of ourselves, of the anxiety and irony of our existence. Spielberg’s film leaves that out, which perhaps produces a final irony: when we cheer the death of the alien and breathe a sigh of relief, we don’t even know that the alien is us.

wotw6

Ten Years Ago: Land of the Dead

26 Jun

Another new writer joins the 10YA stable. His name is Jake Farley. Let him tell you about zombies.

land1

There’s Something About Zombie – A Land of the Dead Retrospective

Nobody plans for Dracula attacks. There are no internet sites devoted to selling specially branded gear for battling off Creatures from the Black Lagoon. Silver bullets are not available in your local gun store. Zombies, though…that’s a different story. Why do they resonate so strongly with modern-day American culture, while the creatures of the past fade into obscurity? Universal’s stable of monsters, for instance, grew popular by preying on the fears of their times—Frankenstein’s monster spoke of the dangers of uninhibited scientific endeavor, and Dracula represented the waves of scary foreigners entering America every day (particularly scary Eastern European foreigners, like my own sweet grandmother; though she was not, as far as I know, a Dracula). That’s not all there was to these creatures and their popularity, of course, but identifying and preying upon one commonly held fear that resonates with a wide group of people is a good path to continued relevancy.

So where does that leave the zombie? The word “zombie” once referred only to a relatively obscure Haitian myth, of an undead or hypnotized person magically enslaved to the will of an evil sorcerer. What we think of today as a “zombie” was essentially invented whole cloth by George Romero for 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, though even that movie did not use the term “zombies” (instead referring to the undead as “ghouls”). Critics did, though, and by the time of the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, it was their official name.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that “zombie” became a genre unto itself, and, in my completely uninformed opinion, I think there are a number of converging factors that caused their resurgence in popularity. Video games, for instance, are always on the lookout for an enemy that the player can kill without feeling too bad about the act of digital murder, and by then people were getting tired of World War II games and their Nazi punching bags. Zombies make an acceptable substitute. I also think zombies speak to the American’s sense of exceptionalism. We like to imagine ourselves the heroes, the iconoclasts, the ones who will make it in the end, and what better background to set ourselves up against than the hordes of the undead? Everyone else is an undead sucker, but not you—you’re a survivor.

There’s also more intimate fears mixed in with the zombie’s DNA—disease transmission, the inevitability of death, the fear of conformity and loss of identity all resonate strongly in our culture for various reasons. The zombie is a powerful metaphor, and nobody understands that better than George Romero, the man who invented them.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying I really like the movie Land of the Dead. When I first saw it in college, it was an exciting time—a new zombie movie from the man himself! I grew up on the latter films of the original trilogy, the grotesque practical effects of Tom Savini staining images on my young brain in the garish bright orange/red of their cheap fake blood.

After my first viewing of Land of the Dead, though, I remember being vaguely disappointed. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but there was just something about it that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time. Having seen it a few times in the years since, I’ve warmed up to it greatly, and viewing it again earlier this week, I finally realized what put me off about it originally. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.

land4

For those who haven’t seen it, Land of the Dead takes place largely in the fenced-off ruins of Pittsburgh. It’s unclear how long after the undead rose that the film takes place, though a rough guess of 25 years or so can be inferred through some bits of dialogue. The unzombified masses eke out a meager existence in the ruins of the city, while the wealthy elite (the 1%, if you will) live in a luxurious tower called Fiddler’s Green, with all the amenities one could hope for in the apocalypse; running water, electricity, alcohol, nice turtleneck/blazer combos, etc. The entire deal is overseen by a gentleman named Paul Kaufman (delightfully underplayed by Dennis Hopper), who endeavors mostly to keep himself rich above all else.

He accomplishes this by sending out roving teams of scavengers equipped with a purpose-built anti-zombie war rig (with apologies to Furiosa) called “Dead Reckoning.” It was designed and built by that guy from The Mentalist (Simon Baker), and crewed by himself and various other roughnecks, but the standout character here is an amoral “cleaner” for Kaufman named “Cholo,” played by the always-fantastic John Leguizamo. Cholo’s dream is to buy his way into Fiddler’s Green, but when he’s rebuffed by his boss for being the kind of unbelievable boor who would pour champagne into a whisky tumbler rather than a flute (a nice little bit of silent business between Leguizamo and Hopper in this scene), Cholo decides to steal Dead Reckoning and use its missile banks to hold the city hostage. It’s a very well-equipped anti-zombie tank. The guy from The Mentalist is then tasked with returning the vehicle before Cholo has the chance to kill all the rich people with it, because that would of course be a tragedy. The guy from The Mentalist has other plans, though- he plans to steal Dead Reckoning for himself and, like all pasty white Americans when the chips are down, use it to flee to Canada. Things go from bad to worse and we proceed until everyone in Pittsburgh has been eaten by zombies.

The guy from The Mentalist and his buddies are only half the story, though. The other group of main characters is a pack of zombies led by a former gas station attendant named “Big Daddy” (or at least, that’s the name stitched onto his coveralls). Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) appears to be smarter than your average zombie. He is not fascinated by the fireworks the living deploy to distract the zombies during scavenging missions, and he appears to be able to communicate on a rudimentary level with other undead. What’s more, they seem willing to listen.

This is actually a continuation of a story thread from Romero’s previous zombie film, Day of the Dead. In that movie, scientists have captured a zombie they name “Bud” and perform cruel experiments on it. What they don’t expect to discover, however, is that Bud is capable of learning. In the climax of the film when all hell, as it is wont to do, breaks loose, Bud obtains and successfully operates a pistol and appears to hold personal grudges against specific characters.

land2

What we come to discover through the course of that film and, particularly, through the course of Land of the Dead, is that the zombies are also capable of anguish, of rage, of sadness, and of friendship. Big Daddy is visibly enraged at the sight of zombies strung up for use as target practice by the living. He is also a tool user, learning the rudiments of operating a firearm quickly and on his own, and instructing other zombies in the use of their own found objects. He’s also a capable strategist, realizing that the rivers surrounding Pittsburgh, which supposedly keep the populace safe from the undead hordes, are in fact not much of a barrier at all to beings that cannot drown.

What Romero gives us is a strange empathy for these creatures. They’re monsters, yes, and they’ll kill and eat us, yes, but they are also beings in their own right. They are not the simple mindless monsters we assumed them to be. Much as we might wish it were so, our enemies are rarely that simple. It’s a powerful choice that robs the zombie of much of what makes them scary, but gives back to them a measure of humanity and dignity that, perhaps, even they had thought lost forever.

I suppose that brings us back around to what I found dissatisfying about my original watch ofLand of the Dead back in 2005. Seeing it again this week, I realized I was expecting a horror movie, but this is not a horror movie. At best, it’s an action film with some incredible gore and some thoughts about society. It’s explicitly about class warfare (at one point after being bitten, Cholo is offered the classic mercy bullet to the head before he turns; he turns it down, grinning wryly and remarking that he’s “always wanted to see how the other half lived”), and firmly sides with the poor and the put-upon in society. When the zombies finally level Pittsburgh, it’s difficult not to feel some sympathy given the way we’ve seen them treated by the city dwellers throughout the movie—they’re used as props in photo booths, they’re used for target practice, they’re used for bear baiting games in sleazy bars, the list goes on. It’s hard to escape the sensation that a lot of these people kind of had it coming.

land3

But, crucially, there’s very little tension. It’s not difficult to guess who is going to live and die by the end of the film, and the action isn’t presented as frightening at any point. By the time the film takes place, everyone left alive is a hardened survivor. Zombies don’t scare them anymore, so they stop scaring the audience. What’s left is an entertaining action flick that condemns the excesses people allow themselves at the expense of others, and warns that exploitation is simply a credit card whose payments will come due, one way or the other. It’s also a strangely reassuring movie—being a zombie isn’t so bad, it argues. At least you’ll be among friends.

By the end of the film, when our heroes have utterly failed to save Pittsburgh and Big Daddy’s zombie hordes have fed well, the two groups catch sight of one another. Rather than immediately eating and/or opening fire, they eye each other from a distance. In that moment, they seem to understand something of one another—their senses of camaraderie, perhaps, or maybe just their mutual weariness. They know that to clash now would just result in more death for both sides. After a long moment, the zombies turn and go one way, the living turn and go the other. If nothing else, they’ve learned that much.

MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS

– There are some truly, fantastically disgusting gore effects in this movie. Standouts include an arm being ripped in half lengthwise, a zombie pulling a guy’s whole head and spine out like he just won Mortal Kombat, and a zombie pushing his entire forearm down some poor bastard’s throat and pulling out handfuls of viscera.

– Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo really steal this movie. They’re a lot of fun to watch. Cholo is clearly kind of meant to be a bad guy, but it’s really hard to dislike someone with John Leguizamo’s huge charisma. He turns what could have been a pretty unappealing character into a zombie apocalypse Han Solo.

– The original title of the film was Dead Reckoning. They changed it to Land of the Dead both for branding purposes and because Dead Reckoning is a terrible name for a movie.

– The guy from The Mentalist as the main character is kind of a total nothing. He’s blandly good-looking and generic enough that it’s difficult to envision him building an awesome zombie-fighting tank, but we’re told he did and he’s the main character, so we’ll just have to get used to him, dammit.

– There are a lot of characters I didn’t get around to mentioning. Asia Argento is probably the most significant—she plays a stereotypically sexy tough fishnet-wearing punk who teams up with our heroes for no better reason than it was looking a little sausage-festy in here without her. For the most part, none of the characters are nearly as interesting as the plot itself.

– Pedro Arce as the giant Samoan enforcer named “Pilsbury” is another standout, actually. He takes what could have been a nothing role and imbues it with a lot of humor and character.

– Legendary gore FX artist Tom Savini has a cameo in the film, actually. He reprises his role from the original Dawn of the Dead as the now-zombified leader of the biker gang that raided the mall in that movie. For that matter, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (then of Shaun of the Dead fame) cameo as the photobooth zombies.

land5

Ten Years Ago: Batman Begins

26 Jun

Maggie McMuffin got drunk and rewatched Batman Begins. This is the result.

Batman1

I’m in the process of moving. I was going through my movies, tossing stuff out, and when I got to the animated adaptation of Year One it was a no-brainer to put it in the ‘thrift store’ pile. I wasn’t a fan of the movie, I wasn’t a fan of that story. When I first and only read the trade I was left feeling meh and wondering how this could have once been groundbreaking. How it could have, years later, led to the kickoff of a franchise that changed the face of superhero films.

And then, while going through the other two-and-a-half shelves of Batman-related properties I realized I didn’t even own Batman Begins.

The Burton/Schumacher box set, three seasons of two animated shows, Dark Knight andDark Knight Rises, 8 DCUA animated features, four DCAU animated features including two VHS tapes and a repeat title, Batman ‘69, a porn parody and… I don’t own Batman Begins. I don’t think I ever did. I can’t even say I loaned it out because there’s not even a space for it. It’s just not there.

But considering my ambivalence towards Year One is that any shock?

(Note: The day I was supposed to submit this review I was packing more stuff and foundBatman Begins tucked away with yet more cartoons and movies I don’t care about. So while it is not true that I never owned a copy of that movie it may as well be.)

When I first saw Batman Begins in theaters at the tender age of 15, I was also left feeling meh. I immediately wanted to go home and watch Batman ’89, a movie I have since decided is a great Burton movie but a shit Batman movie.

Every time I rewatched Batman Begins in later years I would just want to watch Mask of the Phantasm. It’s an animated film which, as far as I and a bunch of other nerds are concerned, is the absolute best Batman movie ever made. And it was released in theatres so you can’t even tell me it doesn’t count. Go watch it on YouTube right now.

Ten years ago, watching the film on IMAX, I felt crowded. I knew nothing about cinematography but I knew filming fight scenes up close in the dark is not effective. I didn’t catch all the references (this was before I got into the comics) but something felt wrong. This wasn’t MY Batman. Maybe it was growing up on The Animated Series. Maybe it was having nostalgia for Batman ‘89 and Batman and Robin. Maybe it was that I can’t stand Katie Holmes.

But it didn’t grab me.

To this day, the only remarkable thing about this film to me is the soundtrack and that’s because I lost my virginity to the second half of this movie on a later viewing and, let me tell you, that soundtrack makes fucking for the first time feel really exciting.

I would tell someone to stop distracting me they really have to watch this part during Mask of the Phantasm. I would stop mid-blowjob for parts of Dark Knight. I would masturbate in the theatre to Tom Hardy’s masked face in Rises if I wasn’t too lazy to touch myself and skeezed out by PDA.

But getting up halfway through Begins for sex? Easy.

Hell, I would leave after Cillian Murphy’s scenes were done to drive across town and eat a mediocre bagel.

My point is that I just don’t like it too much.

But like Year One it did start something. Without Begins we wouldn’t have Dark Knight, which is easily the best of Nolan’s trilogy and really the film that launched the superhero renaissance. A note about how I’ve changed since seeing this film. At 14 when it came out I was staunchly against dating or any romantic entanglements, cynical towards all forms of love. When I watched this film again I did it after making my current partner let me make him dinner so I could show off my cooking. He traded dinner for wine and as a result I ended up watching Batman Begins kind of drunk. So in lieu of an actual article or recap, we’re gonna Hemingway this shit and just have sober me write notes (parenthesized italics) about the synopsis and commentary drunk me wrote.

batman2

SO MANY BATS. IN CASE YOU FORGOT THAT’S HIS THING.

AND THE BATS MAKE A BAT.

(I had actually never noticed that Nolan doesn’t use title cards. I will admit that is cool because it’s not like Batman needs an introduction.)

Flashback to falling in the well because Rachel Katie Holmes won’t let baby Bruce see an arrowhead so he steals it. Fucking rich boy. Yeah you fall in that well. You deserve that.

Rachel shouts for her mom and Alfred. I guess Bruce’s parents aren’t around.

Oh god, time change. Why Nolan. Learn linear storytelling. Bruce is now in…Asia. China? Tibet? Nolan doesn’t care why should I?

(Nolan not caring about specific Asian countries continues throughout the series. Beginning here with a really white-washed fake-out Ras Al Ghul and continuing with a white washed Bane and Talia Al Ghul in Dark Knight Rises. Nolan is a man who can make a film about four separate and distinct layers of consciousness but couldn’t give a fuck about being more specific about which area of fucking Asia we are in or, you know, casting people of color to play characters of color. Not cool, man. Not cool.)

Oh, it’s a prison. And Bale has the cheekbones to prove it. He’s also snarky about the food and gets punched out. Now begins the story of white men being better at martial arts than Asian people.

“You’re not the devil. You’re practice.”

(That line is hella Batman though. Snarky Batman is my favorite Batman. Again, seeAnimated Series.)

Bruce Wayne goes to prison but learns nothing from the experience and proceeds to put more people in jail for the rest of his life.

Oh man, a fight in daylight! How great would it be if more things were shot like that? I know how great it would be. It would be as great as Fury Road. WITNESS.

Bruce does not play well with others, gets thrown in his cell with TOTALLY NOT RAS AL GHUL. THIS IS HENRY DUCARD. HE IS TOTALLY NOT RAS AL GHUL (NRAG), YOU GUYS.

I love Liam Neeson’s elf ears.

NRAG gets him out and tells him to go pick a flower and carry it up a mountain. ONLY BRUCE KNOWS BRUCE’S LIFE, NRAG. SHUT UP.

Batman3

Bruce gets the flower after hiking across a glacier.

HOW IS POISON IVY NOT THE VILLAIN NEXT FILM? THIS IS THE NEEDLESS DEATH OF A FLOWER.

(It’s not in my notes but I do remember making my partner pause the movie here so that I could tell him about Poison Ivy’s intro episode in The Animated Series and how it was literally her seducing, fake engagementing, and trying to kill Harvey Dent for making a flower go extinct and the show carried that fact through all four seasons. I would like to point out here that if someone watching this movie with me took a drink every time I made us pause so I could talk about The Animated Series they would quickly be as drunk as I was.)

 

Oh hey it’s fake RAG. He’s actually Asian.

Note: The attempts at realism ended in cartoonishness. If you have a cartoon (TAS) that is rooted in humanity and real moments, it adds weight to the cartoonishness. But if you have reeealism it just makes the cracks show more. Especially when you’re not actually going for realism but ’90s ideas of cooooooool.

(This was something my partner pointed out and drunk me yelled about. The reasons Nolan’s films aren’t actually realistic is because they’re trying to be realistic but have to be a bit cartoonish because they’re about a goddamn dude dressing up as a bat because no one made him go to therapy as a kid despite his family being super rich and able to afford mental health care. Trying to make a cartoon plot real is going to make the weak spots show. But if you have something based in that cartoon concept and you instead fill it with humanity and character growth it allows the cartoon bits to feel real and whole. And let’s face it, Nolan’s films aren’t actually realistic. They’re gritty. There is a HUGE difference between gritty, which is a genre aesthetic that DC films have since beat into the ground because the company largely spent ten years after this film hating fun and joy, and actual realism. There’s a reason superhero comics are supposed to be allegories and modern myths and not, you know, a fucking how-to manual on how to deal with your problems.)

I M DRUNK BTW.

(In case you forgot)

oh it’s a fear flower. Bruce has to face and overpower his fears. “DEATH DOES NOT WAIT.”

OH SHIT THIS WAS PRE-ACTION NEESON. HE HAD IT IN HIM ALL ALONG.

(At this point drunk me got really sad about Natasha Richardson. Her untimely and tragic death in 2008 was what led to Liam Neeson throwing himself into any and all projects he was offered as a way to deal with his grief. It’s the reason we have the current image of Liam Neeson. I had totally forgotten that at this point he was still respected actor Liam Neeson which means this movie qualifies for one of my favorite things: amazing British actors putting on serious performances for silly material.)

NRAG fucks up Bruce. “You are afraid. Not of me.”

WHAT IS BRUCE AFRAID OF? MYSTERY OF THE AGES. IT’S PROBABLY RESPONSIBILITY.

batman4

Back to the well in the past. Bruce has calmed down. Single father Thomas Wayne jumps down to get him. Alfred is trying. ALFRED IS SHAFTED HERE.

“Why do we fall? To get back up.”

HEY MANTRA.

(Ten minutes in: First Phantasm rant about origins stories.)

OH HEY, PEARL NECKLACE. Martha continues not speaking but being pretty. HOW CAN YOU FRIDGE THE WOMAN IF YOU MAKE THE MAN SO MUCH MORE, NOLAN?

Why does his dad looks like James Woods?

“Your mother has no lines.”

(Not but seriously FUCK CHRISTOPHER NOLAN. Bruce Wayne had two parents killed in front of him. Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace is a goddamn focal point of the Crime Alley story. She was there, too. She loved Bruce, too. But this film doesn’t give a shit about her. And Nolan has repeatedly fridged women in his films so I don’t see why he would shaft her. But it continues in the next film where father/son relationships take precedence over canon because in Dark Knight Jim Gordon is all worried about Two Face killing his son and not his daughter. And while Gordon does in fact have a son in canon, you cannot tell me that he’s more important than BARBARA GORDON. I don’t even care if it was because he didn’t want there to be an entry for sidekicks, he gave us a Dick Grayson stand in Dark Knight Rises and I am just really pissed about this erasure of women who are important to Batman in favor of stories about father/son relationships.)

THEY DON’T SEE ZORRO, THEY SEE FAUST. OF COURSE A KID GETS SCARED.

(Here I went on a rant not about The Animated Series but about Batman: The Brave and the Bold which, despite being a very lighthearted cartoon based off of the silver age comics (Crazy Quilt shows up, you guys), has the most fucking stone-cold heartbreaking version of Crime Alley I have ever seen. They told that story FOR THEIR CHRISTMAS EPISODE AND KIND OF MADE IT BRUCE’S FAULT. It was fuuuuuuucked.)

“It is irresponsible to take what is no more than a ten year old to what is a, if this is Goethe’sFaust, that is a three-hour opera. He is gonna have nightmares. Waynes, I’m sorry, you deserved your death.” (Partner’s commentary. I agree. That opera was terrifying.)

Editor’s Note: The opera is Mefistofele, but the point still stands.

SHE HAD A LINE. “WHAT’S WRONG BRUCE?”

(MARTHA WAYNE GOT ONE LINE, YOU GUYS. ONE LINE AND A SCREAM.)

And now Bruce can have survivor’s guilt. Thomas tries to stop the mugger. It’s an accident. Then Martha dies first. Bruce only cares about dad. Then Gordon is there. Just for a moment. The empire is waiting for you, Bruce. Rachel leaves. Alfred will be mother and father now because Alfred is the literal best. Alfred tells Bruce it wasn’t his fault. Clearly it doesn’t stick but hey he tried.

(Alfred is the literal best human being Bruce will ever meet. Alfred gives me so many heart feelings and Michael Caine plays the shit out of how much he cares for Bruce.)

Batman5

BACK TO FEAR MOUNTAIN.

The prison beard is shaved. NRAG says Bruce can be invisible and engage 600 men. Smoke bomb! Become more than a man. “Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrives on the indulgence of society’s understanding.” NRAG DOES NOT FUCK AROUND AND GOES FOR BIG GUNS.

IT WAS YOUR DAD’S FAULT, BRUCE.

Stop goading him, NRAG

“The impossible anger strangling the grief until the memory of your loved one is just poison. And then one day you find yourself wishing they had never existed so you would be spared the grief.”

NRAG tells us about his wife.

(Again, while I disagree with a white man being cast as Ras Al Ghul, Liam Neeson does a good job with the script and knowing what he’s talking about, since it’s covered in Dark Knight Rises, makes this scene more poignant. It also starts showing how Bruce and NRAG are different people. Because even though Bruce isn’t dealing with his grief in a healthy way, he’s at least trying to honor his parents (okay, his dad) and prevent tragedy from happening to other people whereas NRAG kind of seems to resent people in his past for making him feel things. Batman is often written as being emotionally shut off so that he can get the job done so it’s kind of nice to have a reminder that his mission of justice is based off of wanting to keep people alive and happy rather than just going around scaring the shit out of people. Side note: You know which version of Batman has him having a heart and showing care when it’s called for? YOU SHOULD KNOW BY NOW.)

Why does Bruce not mourn his mother? Thomas Wayne might as well be a single father.

(Drunk me could not let this go and sober me won’t either. FUCK YOU, NOLAN.)

Vengeance is a hell of a drug. Except Bruce can’t avenge his parents.

BABY BRUCE’S HAIR. SWEET COLLEGE BABY BOY HAIR.

Bruce is not going back to Princeton because they hate him. He’s staying home. Alfred insists that his father is dead and he should be in the master bedroom. Bruce is like NO. And Alfred has feelings, you ungrateful brat.

Rachel and Bruce apparently used to drink condensed milk. ??? Katie Holmes looks sweet and isn’t too bad. Nolan and his screenwriter David S. Goyer can’t write women so women in his films can’t be good. Rachel is understanding.

THEY KEPT THE NAME JOE CHILL.

Chill’s lawyer is bringing up good points about the justice system and desperation and junk. Bruce just stands and leaves.

THIS IS ACTUALLY GOOD.

What? A woman killed him? Who is that random lady in this sea of sausage?

(The whole courtroom scene is good. I like adaptations of Gotham that actually talk about how fucked the economy is there and how it drives people to crime. I like that Joe Chill is repentant but never asks for forgiveness or makes excuses. I like that Bruce is still angry but hasn’t figured out what to do with it yet and honestly considers shooting his parents’ murderer but can’t do it. This scene does a good job of establishing Batman’s issues with guns and having that be a root thing for Bruce even before he starts beating people up and then later realizing that there are other options for going on his crusade that don’t just end with killing people. We don’t actually follow through with that on this film but, hey, they had a moment.)

 batman6

 

(Drunk me didn’t note that this following bit of dialogue is between Rachel and Bruce, post Chill getting killed at the courthouse.)

“You’re not talking about justice you’re talking about is vengeance.”

“Sometimes they’re the same thing.”

“Justice is about harmony. Vengeance is about making yourself feel better.”

(YES. PEOPLE CALLING OUT BRUCE WAYNE FOR BEING SELFISH IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE THINGS.)

Oh man the recession was a thing wasn’t it? These movies really tried talking about that.

Bruce can’t kill Chill. Rachel hits him for having the gun.

“Your father would be ashamed of you.”

Bruce throws the gun away because CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. GUNS BAD. BRUCE GOOD.

Oh yeah I forgot that Nolan’s film are always filled with British actors trying to be American. Bruce stands up to Falcone and Falcone points a gun at him. “That’s power you can’t buy. That’s the power of fear.”

“People from your world have so much to lose. You think because your mommy and daddy got shot you know the ugly side of life. You don’t know desperate.”

YES. CALL OUT HIS CLASS PRIVILEGE.

OH MY GOD I FORGOT HOW LONG IT TAKES TO GET TO CILLIAN MURPHY. WHY IS HE NOT HERE YET?

Bruce gives his coat away to a homeless dude and disappears. It’s a nice coat.

“First time I stole so I wouldn’t starve I lost many assumptions about the nature of right and wrong.” BRUCE IS LEARNING.

(Seriously, if your version of the Batfamily doesn’t include members of it having varying degrees of understanding for people committing survival crimes get the fuck out of my face.)

HA. He stole from himself to learn a lesson.

(Which means he didn’t actually steal and he still gets to keep the moral high ground. That’s a cop out.)

Now take the fear tea and live, Bruce! Feel your anger rage through you like a cleanse! RAGE CLEANSE.

“You must bask in the fear of other men.”

Now let’s go through a gauntlet. Embrace your worst fear, Bruce! Get to the box! Become one with the darkness, Bruce! OH FUCK BAT BOX. OH FUCK, JESUS.

Oh god this movie is boring. But it is about Batman, really and truly. And Batman is the Ted Mosby of Gotham. I just don’t care.

(Sober me also doesn’t care. Batman is my least favorite Batman character and once I realized this movie is all about Batman I suddenly understood why I hate it.)

batman7

Bruce beat NRAG. Fake RAG (FRAG) claps. They speak Urdu according to subtitles. “We have purged your fear. You are ready to lead these men.”

But first, kill this dude.

NO. “Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.”

“That’s why it’s so important.”

One good thing about the whitewashing is that it’s not some white guy taking the moral high ground against a foreign man of color.

That said, do better Nolan.

Gotham in particular sucks. The whole wide world and Gotham is the worst.

BRUCE IS GONNA BURN THIS PLACE DOWN MOTHERFUCKERS.

“What’s necessary, my friend.” Should have called him old chum but whatever it’s not my movie. Let’s just only do shout outs to Frank Miller I guess.

FRAG is good at fighting but gets crushed by falling roof.

(“is this movie half over yet?” “It’s like a third of the way over.” “That’s okaaaay. I guess.”)

(At this point I had hit peak drunk and peak boredom. I remember literally fidgeting like a small child and whining about the movie being too long even though this movie is actually pretty short.)

Bruce is off a cliff with NRAG and pulls him up. Only white guys live. Because. BECAUSE.

Bruce leaves him in the rubble with an old man who says he’ll say Bruce saved his life.

Bruce goes to a private jet and Alfred is there to greet him. MONEY IS AWESOME YOU GUYS.

Bruce wants to show Gotham that the people own it. But not as Bruce. Because a symbol is better. “I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.”

(That would have been fucking great if Gotham was left with a Batman at the end of the trilogy instead of Bruce somehow not dying in a bomb and then retiring to France.)

Alfred gets that this is also about protecting people. “Rachel? I was thinking of myself.” GOOD. ALFRED IS BEST. YOU SNARKY MAGNIFICENT BASTARD.

Bruce was declared dead because you were gone for seven years dude. Good thing Bruce left everything to Alfred. Is that how laws work? Note: Ask Dizzy.

CILLIAN MURPHY IS HERE.

oh god he is so pretty

batman8

And he’s defending Zsasz. Easter Egg!

He keeps putting people in Arkham who work for the mob. And Rachel’s boss is not happy about her yelling at him about it.

Bruce is costume designing and sees a bat. IDEA!

Let’s go spelunking.

Everytime stupid blue eyes (Cillian Murphy) takes off his glasses it is scary. SBE is working for a mysterious someone. He’s also wary of Rachel and tells on her. SBE is so calm and so oddly fuckable.

(Ten years later and I still really have a thing for Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane. Which is not the healthiest choice I’ve made. Then again I also couldn’t shake my love of Hugh Grant playing assholes so I guess when my partner said ‘Maggie likes stupid blue eyed boys’ he was kind of right and since I know he’s reading this I’m gonna tell him right now he can shut his stupid blue eyed trap.)

Back to Wayne Industries. I don’t care.Blah blah weapons. Blah blah Bruce is back. Rachel learns this, too. Everyone knows now. And now Morgan Freeman. I forgot he’s good.

(“What does it look like in reality? Not as much fun.”)

Lucius Fox also is just the best at ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

I wish he said he was doing competitive spelunking. Much better cover.

That cave is so full of shit and toxic.

The Waynes were so nice they were a stop on the underground railroad.

(Actually I think this was when I hit peak drunk and bored.)

Now we get a proper introduction to Gordon, the hero of Gotham. He’s no rat.

(This movie is actually really good at pacing out introductions.)

Bruce fake gun-points him and asks what it takes to get rid of Falcone.

That is not how you partners, Bruce. I’m glad this is keeping his habit of deputizing people without being open about stuff.

And he does not stick the landing.

BASE Jumping is an acronym? LEARNING.

(“There’s no Batman yet so what does Lucius think he’s doing?”)

(Oh wow I was drunk during that part. So, uh, we meet Gordon and Batman just makes him promise to stay good and help out. I love Jim Gordon more than I love Batman. Jim Gordon is a good man in a shit city who tries to do good all the fucking time and tries to do it without, you know, running around beating the shit out of people. And Lucius is just funny as well as technologically useful as all shit. Also, I still don’t know what BASE jumping stands for but apparently when I was drunk I was really excited about the acronym.)

Editor’s Note: Building Antenna Span Earth

(You should want to fuck during a movie because it’s so damn hot you just can’t stop not because you’re bored and your partner never wears pants.)

(Okay, as I mentioned earlier, I lost my virginity to this film. And it’s not so much that I imprinted on it and it now makes me want to have sex. It’s that I now know that there is always a better option than watching this film. You know how some people say if they had to choose between sex and pizza they’ll always choose sex? See, that’s not a clear-cut answer for me. But Batman Begins and sex? I know that I’m gonna enjoy most sex more than I enjoy this film and hopefully the sex won’t take up two hours of my life telling an inferior version of a story that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm tells in less time and with better everything.)

Batman9

(We are an hour in and there’s no Batman.)

They ordered 10,000 masks. Are they molded to his face? Are they already styled that way? What the fuck are the long fingers? This montage is weird.

First Batman scene, we don’t see him. He’s just grabbing people and there’s horror music. It’s cool. Falcone tries to run but NOPE.

“Nice coat” is legitimately funny.

Rachel is walking home and gets accosted. She thinks she scared the dude but, nope, it was Batman. Batman tells her that she scared Falcone.

(You’re not cool enough to ever physically defend yourself Rachel and you’re gonna get fridged next movie but you pissed off a mob boss enough to get a hit put out on you so good job on that moxy!)

Bale’s Bat-Voice here is not that bad.

(It really isn’t! I don’t know why Bale pushed it so much further in the next film. It works here. It’s great. Top notch work, Bale.)

Anyway they strung Falcone up like a bat signal. “What the hell is that?” GOOD QUESTION. Vigilantes are unacceptable.

Rachel is all excited about justice and her boss is kind of ‘meh.’

(Rachel is a real hero and deserves so much more than she gets.)

Alfred won’t let Bruce sleep in. Poor baby. He gets up and does push-ups. Alfred tells him he has to get a cover story.

Oh and there’s our MacGuffin. The water thing. They lost it.

(It’s a giant hand wavey microwave thing that vaporizes all the water around it. But only the literal water. Like, despite being 70% water humans won’t be affected by it at all.)

Bruce Wayne shows up with blondes. They jump in  the fountain. WACKY.

Bruce is good at the jerkass rich boy thing.

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE.

(See it’s funny because Bruce Wayne jumped in the fountain too and there was this band back in the day and shut up it’s funny.)

 batman10

Rachel dresses more conservatively for a night on the town than she does for work.

Dr. Crane is meeting Falcone. YES. THIS SCENE. I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR IT.

Falcone tries scaring Crane and brings up experiments and Crane stays calm. “Would you like to see my mask?” is the best. THE BEST.

Playing Crane so understated really works.

(No but really, this is my favorite scene in the entire film, possibly the entire trilogy. I’m not really attached to any other version of Scarecrow. I don’t hate him, I just don’t care. But Cillian Murphy playing him as very calm rather than some screaming fear acolyte is BRILLIANT. And him taking off his glasses to explain the mask and getting noticeably excited but still being more understated than any other character in the film is effective and all the more terrifying. As much as I have issues with this film and find it boring, I will watch it just to get to this scene because it is perfection.)

Gordon only has a son. Fuck you, Nolan.

(TAKE A DRINK EVERY TIME I CURSE NOLAN/GOYER FOR ERASING OR UNDERSERVING FEMALE CHARACTERS.)

I do remember my dad saying this is the first time he heard Batman yell in a movie. Billy just said the same thing.

(It’s true. Bruce just screams at this guy and normally Batman is acted all sullen and shadowy. It’s a good choice and, you know, if you’re trying to instill fear in someone, running them up the side of the building and yelling into their face is a great way to accomplish that.)

“Do I look like a cop?” NICE.

I like how the cops aren’t covering they just don’t know what’s in the box and don’t want to know.

(Purposeful ignorance is an important skill to have if one hopes to survive in Gotham.)

I think this was around the point where I started losing my virginity. It just feels like it. Or maybe I’m just bored.

batman11

HEY JOFFREY.

Playing with Batman fucks kids up.

Bruce gets gassed! “You look like a man who takes himself too seriously.” And then puns! And also setting him on fire.

Again, cartoon did it better because WILL POWER BRUCE.

(There’s an episode of The Animated Series which was basically a 20-minute version of this segment of the film.)           

ALFRED IS CRYING. NO MY HEART WHY NO.

Bruce recognizes this shit. Lucius is here, too. He took Bruce’s blood.

“I just wanted you to know how hard it was.”

This movie is funny. This movie is not too grim dark.

Rachel brings Bruce a present. She can’t come to the birthday party because her boss is missing. He’s probs dead.

(Reasonable guess when one works the justice system of Gotham.)

Rachel is going to Arkham, which is in The Narrows. Rich people fear it.

Awww, her gift was the arrowhead.

The batarangs do not match the chest logo and that bothers me.

Falcone is just crazy now.

Rachel don’t buy that.

“There is nothing conveniENT about his symptoms.” nice clipped ‘T’ there. Rachel has a moment of being like ‘you’re so creepy’ without actually saying it. She is not for medical care for criminals.

(This movie is really bad about mental health and kind of just says everyone is faking it. Dark Knight does a little better if I remember correctly but this film just has people on all sides saying criminals need punishment and having us only see people feign mental illness to get out of that, save for Falcone being driven mad by the fear gas. It’s not good.)

Crane shows her the medicine room and dumping fear junk in the water and then the chase is on! It is a short chase and then he drugs her. Rachel responds very silently.

“He’s playing James Spader in Pretty in Pink!”

(My partner yelled that and I can’t remember if it was accurate because everything in this film is becoming a blur.)

Crane knows the cops are a safer bet than The Batman. He also says that Rachel was given a concentrated dose. Criminals are scared of the Batman because they are a superstitious and cowardly lot.

(At this point I am forcing myself to keep watching this film because I know Cillian Murphy is almost gone forever.)

Then we get RAG’s name and Crane is just so calm under his gas. Like he trained for it.

(Again: CILLIAN MURPHY IS KILLING THIS ROLE.)

 batman12

Cops are also scared of Batman. BUT NOT JIM HERO COP GORDON.

Weaponized bats are cool and you should do it more often.

But if he ripped off the heel of his shoe won’t his balance be off now?

(This moment is a literal scene from Batman Begins where Bruce sets off some sonar to attract a swarm of bats. It’s effective but seriously Bruce tears off the heel of his boot, which is a good half an inch or larger, and just tosses it away. There’s no way that’s not going to affect your gait.)

Doesn’t matter because car chase.

SO MUCH PROPERTY DAMAGE. TRYING TO BABYSIT HIGH RACHEL. WHO IS DRUGGED. SO LET’S TAKE HER ON A CAR CHASE WHILE DRESSED AS A BAT. Katie Holmes acts this appropriately.

HOW DID HE PRACTICE FOR THIS? HE CANNOT HAVE DRIVEN LIKE THIS BEFORE.

(This is literally the first time we see Bruce using this outside of his initial test drive at Wayne Industries. And while the victory is in the preparation and Batman is a master of training there has been nothing in this film to indicate he was able to practice drive this. LET ALONE THROUGH BUSY CITY STREETS AND OVER ROOFTOPS.)

Bruce losing his Batman voice as he worries for Rachel is a good bit of understated acting.

All of Gotham is drugged but you have to breathe it so I guess we’re okay.

Rachel is fine now. No effects.

“I don’t have the luxury of friends.”

(Especially not in this universe where you don’t even get proper sidekicks or a relationship with your mother.)

And then he knocks her out and goes upstairs to his party.

Alfred scolds him and says people could be killed. We have entered a Batman who doesn’t so much not kill as not intentionally murder.

“It can’t be personal or you’re just a vigilante.”

“I don’t care about my name.” Alfred does. Alfred cares about Bruce’s dad. Just his dad. Not his mom. No one cares about Martha.

(Fuck you, Nolan.)

And we get Crane latching onto Scarecrow. He’s for it and he doesn’t give a fuck.

Party mingling about business and crime. Bruce tells Lucius to break into the company and make more antidote.

And there’s RAG! For real this time! “I warned you about compassion, Bruce.”

RAG challenges Bruce to get rid of his guests and Bruce does by being a shit. Way to go Bruce! This isn’t even him faking. He really hates these people.

(I love this speech because it’s just Bruce going all Holden Caulfield on the crowd and calling them phonies and sycophants. It’s even better since while it’s Bruce getting people out so they don’t die, it’s also kind of Bruce taking the opportunity to tell the unhelpful rich to fuck off. WINNING.)

batman13

Crane thought they would hold the city ransom. But instead it is to watch it destroy itself.

Arkham break! I love a good Arkham break!

Crane gets let out and given his mask.

(Scarecrow actually has a really good arc in this film, given how little screen time he gets. It feels like a nice progression from eccentric doctor to full out costumed villain.)

RAG is like I made you and shit, you are the best but now you are weak and suck balls.

Wait so they made Gotham shitty and then got mad at it for being shitty and then wasn’t burning fast enough? Or was it just a size thing?

(I’m sober and I still don’t understand this logic but it wouldn’t be a Nolan film without some convoluted backstory that doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny.)

Alfred saves Bruce! Oh now he cares about his legacy. Or half of it. Because Martha still doesn’t get love.

Rachel does not take shit, gets antidote to Gordon.

Some guy pushes kid Joffrey away via face and it pisses Rachel off. She now gets that it’s not the real cops. THERE GO THE DRUGS. PANIC AT THE NARROWS.

(There is a lot of women screaming but no women on screen.)

(I hate Horse Cops. They are my least favorite of cops)

Crane is Scarecrow now. Gordon is alone save for Batman. Rachel is a babysitter.

WEAPONIZED MONORAIL. WHY MUST YOU WARP SUCH A THING OF BEAUTY INTO A KILLING MACHINE?

Rachel tazers Crane in the face and he is gone. Rachel has a gun now and is facing off against Zsasz. Batman steals her thunder.

(Again: Rachel is never allowed to physically defend herself and is literally exploded in the next movie.)

“It’s not who I am underneath but who I am that defines me.”

This line would be better if he had an heir at all.

Everyone attacks Batman because he is terrifying.

(I have reached the point in this film where I am talking to Captain America. Your film is great Cap. Also this movie is only 90 minutes. Like an hour forty. Movies used to be shorter.)

(My partner has a Captain America poster in their room so when I say I started talking to Captain America I mean I literally got so tired of this film that I held a conversation with Captain America.)

 

batman14

Monorail is almost there. RAG and Bruce fight. Lots of smashing.

“I won’t kill you but I don’t have to save you.” YES YOU DO. YOU DO HAVE TO SAVE HIM, BUT PUT HIM IN JAIL THIS TIME.

 

(No, but seriously. This is an issue I also have with Burton’s films. Batman choosing not to save someone is the same as condemning them to death. It makes Batman an active participant in their death. And that’s not Batman save for like one or two huge and major moments like the Darkseid thing. You can’t have Batman give up on his compassion because even if he is a curmudgeonly shit, he doesn’t want people to die ever ever ever and will keep his most hated enemies alive even though they keep breaking out and hurting everyone from random civilians to his crime fighting family. Batman just going ‘out!’ to RAG and letting him die is a fucking terrible choice that goes against this film building up Bruce as being compassionate towards humanity despite a compelling need to punch most of it and it’s bullshit.)

Lucius is a BAMF, Bruce closes up the well. Rachel comes over and she knows man. She knows. They reconcile over the gun thing from ten years ago. Rachel is like ‘man I used to love you and it was great and there was hope but…nope.’ She kisses him. Says a thing about masks. She gets that Bruce is the mask. Also nips. Such nips.

 

(Rachel being the one to say no to Bruce is so much better than the usual route of ‘I can’t be with you because you’ll get hurt.’ Rachel, you are underserved in most of this franchise but I am glad you got to be the sensible one here.)

More father flashbacks IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW.

(Drink every time there’s a woman with a speaking role. You will end the movie sober.)

BAT SIGNAL. GORDON GOT A PROMOTION. The Narrows is lost. That sucks. Crane and inmates are gone. Gordon discusses criminals evolving. ‘You’re wearing a mask and jumping off of rooftops. Take this guy.’ Joker card.

YAY IT’S OVER I CAN HAVE SEX.

batman15

As you can see, my ambivalence towards this film hasn’t changed in ten years but my lifelong love of The Animated Series and Mask of the Phantasm grows stronger with each passing year. And, you know, this movie has some good points. Most of them are Cillian Murphy but there are nuggets of strong storytelling and character work in this film as well as a kickass supporting cast of British actors trying to be American. Like most Batman stories and the really well-written ones, the ensemble is incredibly important and fleshed out. Even though this franchise continuously tries to make Batman out to be a loner, it still gives him a shining support system he can’t do this without and that’s nice.

It would just, you know, be nicer if it didn’t come at the cost of ignoring the fact that Batman has women in his life who can take care of themselves or who matter to him at all.

Again, if you want a film that does that, and covers Bruce’s origin story, and handles Batman’s early days and him growing not just into Batman but a better, more bitter Batman, please go watch Mask of the Phantasm. It’s still low on women, featuring just the one, but it turns the love interest trope on its head in multiple ways and also she’s basically Katherine Hepburn in Gotham City.

Or you can keep watching this too. That’s the beauty of Batman is that he’ll always be out there, in many forms, kicking ass and refusing to deal with grief in a healthy way.

batman16

Ten Years Ago: Mr. & Mrs. Smith

26 Jun

In her re-view of Doug Liman’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Rachel Graf gets terribly bored and starts making up pre-Scandal Olivia Pope backstories.

Smith1

For a film about a spy-assassin couple, played by A-list movie stars who fell in love on set,Mr. & Mrs. Smith is incredibly boring. It attempts to spoof two genres, action and rom-com, and largely fails to deliver the engagement of either. I did not remember how bad this film was. I did not remember much about it, aside from a general sense of enjoyment. Ten Years Ago asks how well films hold up over time and how we as viewers have changed. In my previous re-views I’ve focused on the emotional valiances of that second question, but there really isn’t enough going on in Smith for that. What is clear is I am now harder to please.

While I don’t remember actually seeing the movie the first time (I did see it, but the day holds no memory) I have a clear mental image of myself leaning over the counter at the CVS where I worked as a cashier, peering at US Weekly‘s coverage of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s divorce. Technically speaking, employees were not to read the magazines while on the clock, but around 10pm customers appeared in 20 minute intervals, and I thought the risk of being scolded was worth the mild entertainment. That tells you something about why I was able to enjoy Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Two nights a week and one weekend day, after sitting through tedious high school classes, I passed hours monotonously scanning greeting cards and makeup. Occasionally someone would have an amusing purchase like a pack of condoms and hemorrhoid cream. (NB: that purchase never happened. In my boredom I imagined it.)

For my re-view, I made my partner James watch with me. He also saw the film with no distinct memory of it. He was willing, but not optimistic: “I feel like I remember this being a real piece of garbage.” At two full hours this movie is too long by half. Literally, I was bored until 1:10 or so when Angelina and Brad have realized they share the same secret, pretend tried to kill each other while making 1950s era marital jokes like, “I haven’t been satisfied in years,” and finally start fighting as a team. The special effects and choreography get better around this mark, too.

I know the actors fell in love or whatever, but they really seem to have no on-screen chemistry. It doesn’t help that the film devotes half an hour to establishing that their married life is boring and fake. One could imagine an interesting play on the difficulty of achieving genuine contact for people who make their livelihood performing, as they necessarily do in each assassin guise. Maybe their marriage is boring, because they don’t know how to be authentic. Nothing in the film itself makes me engage with this or any other explanation for the stilted conversation and blank faces that read simply as bad acting. Not the music, which is mixed oddly loud relative to dialogue, and certainly not the cinematography, which comprises unimaginative shot-reverse-shot wide angles. These are beautiful actors. Show me their faces! They have sexy bodies!

Everything about the marketing of Mr. & Mrs. Smith promises sexy action flick. So I’m willing to accept the implausibility of its premise. If these two are such amazing spy-assassins, why hasn’t it dawned on them that their spouses are in the same line of work? Fine, I accept that. In a “twist” we learn that their respective agencies each discovered the marriage, which is “bad for business.” Rather than simply kill them, the agencies conspire to trick the Smiths in to targeting one another by sending them both after the same third party. Why do the agencies work together instead of each independently targeting the opposition? Unclear. Why do they use a third party as bait, rather than commission them immediately to kill each other, which becomes the directive halfway through the movie? Narrative purposes. James was really bothered that the film asked us to suspend quite so much disbelief. Having watched most Bond movies, I’m perfectly willing to go along for the ride if there’s witty dialogue and/or compelling action. Mr. & Mrs. Smith offers little of either.

smith4

But okay, enough complaining, right? Here are some things I did enjoy:

– Girl power! This movie takes the idea of a capable female very seriously. Jane and John seem equally matched early on, but there are many moments that seem to tip the scales in her favor. Jane is a better shot, a better stunt driver, better at making people talk, has killed four times as many targets, not to mention better at making a dramatic escape. Except for the telephone voice of her boss, her entire agency is badass women.

– If I imagine that Jane is really the much better assassin, I can accept John’s foolish plan to target her at her headquarters. He goes there alone. She’s got her girl-power crew. She’s got surveillance equipment. But I accept all this, because he’s not all that good at his job. That said, when he shows up, everyone working with Angelina (Jane) seems to feel threatened indeed by this one-man invasion. They abandon ship, zip-lining to the safety of another skyscraper. Zip-lines that, for some unexplained reason, Brad (John) doesn’t use to give chase.

– There’s a shot of Jane jumping off a building using a purse as her anchor that’s pretty baller.

– Angelina Jolie, generally.

– What I thought was a parody of rom-com sex scenes. You know that trope where a couple hooking up for the first time enters an apartment and in their crazy passion knock into everything in their path? The Smiths’ tear-the-house-apart-fight scene looks a lot like this, with similar musical accompaniment, as the two barrel each other into walls and take cheap punches. Unfortunately, this almost parody is immediately followed by an actual rough-sex montage that sort of undercuts my idea that the joke was intentional.

– Explosions

– Kerry Washington. I didn’t know who she was ten years ago. Now I imagine her as Olivia Pope backstory. Olivia works for a big assassin agency, her boss kills everyone else so she can stay married to her assassin husband, and Olivia moves to DC to put her knowledge of spy tactics to better use.

– There was a scene with a baby and a two-second close up of the baby’s face. I enjoyed this both because I always enjoy looking at young mammals and because it was a rare moment of deliberate editing to contrast Jane’s discontentedness with the baby’s just-threw-up-on-mom-glee.

smith3

Free-Floating Thoughts: more stuff I could complain about

– For fun, the characters engage in what James called “Mountain Dew Extreme Sports”: boxing and canyon rock climbing. Jane does the latter, which is more evidence for her superiority.

– The Smiths keep their spy gear in gender-normative locations. She’s got knives in the oven. He’s got guns in the garage.

– Vince Vaughn’s character is really gross. He makes a racist sex joke about ice cream flavors to the waitress at the diner where he is apparently a regular.

– Jane talks to herself a lot.

– The Smith house looks like no one’s home ever. It is huge. They sit down to dinner at opposite ends of a candlelit table, a table long enough to provoke arguments about being unable to reach for the salt. Other than Mr. Burns, who does that?

– Finally this bit of moving dialogue, delivered as the characters race home to kill each other:
“The first time we met, I thought you looked like Christmas morning.”
“Why are you telling me this now?”
“I guess in the end you start thinking about the beginning. I thought you should know.”

smith2

Ten Years Ago: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

9 Jun

With her first re-view for 10YA (and I hope she writes many more, should she be so inclined), here’s writer Jean Burnet with another look at The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

sisterhood1When I first told someone what film I’d be reviewing their exact reaction was:

Fig. 1 Exactus Reactionia

Fig. 1 Exactus Reactionia

I have a confession to make: my love for all things chick flick is limited only by my irrational hatred for Diane Keaton. (But seriously, how many times can she drink a glass of wine and call it a movie?) And if I could count the number of times I’ve watched two seasons of The Voice within a week-long period to get over a break-up (several) it would be a number not at all as close to how many chick flicks I’ve devoured. So now you know.

That said, in many ways I think Sisterhood transcends its genre—sort of. Kind of. A little.

Ten years ago, when this premiered, I was taking driver’s ed, doing hand stuff with my then-boyfriend, listening to Kid A until my ears bled, and trying to figure out how far away I could get from home without actually leaving the planet. The point is: as a sixteen-year-old girl, Iwas the target audience. So if you were not a teenage girl, or trying to date a teenage girl, or trying to be a teenage girl, or currently are a teenage girl—then the likelihood of this film having hit your radar at all decreases exponentially the more un-teenage girl you get. Bear with me.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Anne Brashares, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants explores the interconnected lives of four friends bound together by one magical pair of jeans. I did read the book. I can’t remember if I liked it. What I know is that the “magical” part of the jeans seemed a lot less ridiculous in the book than seeing it literally pass hands between four totally-not-the-same-size-at-all women and still fit them all perfectly. (“It must be some kind of Lycra!” one exclaims. Yeah, okay.) But whatever. We’d all seen Harry Potter by then; we were primed to believe in magic.

Anyway, after their pregnant moms meet in mommy yoga our four main gals enter a lifelong friendship and eventually blossom into their teenage forms: “wild, unstoppable” Bridget, “shy and beautiful” Lena,” Tibby “the rebel,” and our narrator Carmen, “the writer.” Note how this movie is using wardrobe to code character: Tibby rocks blue-streaked hair cause FUCK the status quo; blonde and swan-like Bridget towers over them with the shortest shorts ever; Lena the frump enjoys wearing… I don’t know, she looks fine to me, does that mean I’m frumpy?; and Carmen is wearing some colorful flowery shit that definitely emphasizes the curvy, emotionally volatile half-Puerto Rican that she is. “Ay dios mio!” she says at some point, reiterating she’s the Latina.

Like, if these girls were in Divergent, Bridget would’ve definitely been a Dauntless, Tibby straight up Candor, Lena in Abnegation, and Carmen in, um, Erudite? (Someone write this fan fiction.) Why is this important? I don’t know. Maybe because it’s somewhat setting up what many young adult stories try to say in some way eventually: that we are more than a category. But we’ll get to that.

So back to the jeans: as the girls get ready to spend their first ever summer apart they go on a shopping spree at the local thrift shop. Here they find the jeans, which they begin to pass between each other with increasingly magical results. (Side note: UM WHY ARE THEY UNDRESSING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STORE? WHAT KIND OF BOUTIQUE IS THIS?)

Having secured what they believe to be magical pair of jeans, they have an after-hours sneak into the yoga studio where their moms first met to perform a séance, thus reviving the GHOST OF SIXTH SENSE’S BRUCE WILLIS nah they just celebrate the jeans with some sparkly candles and tell jokes and laugh or whatever. They decide to pass the jeans between them over the summer, and set some magical jeans-related rules, like “no picking your nose when wearing the pants,” “any removal of the pants must be done by the wearer herself” (here they all pointedly look at Bridget, who is totally unapologetic about what she does with her body YOU GO GIRL), and finally, that “pants equal love, love your sisters and love yourself.” This is how metaphors are born people.

Thus they depart.

Lena heads to Greece to spend the summer with her grandparents, or as she refers to them: Papou and Yia Yia. She is immediately swarmed by twenty relatives all throwing jewelry and shit at her. I wish this was how my family greeted me. In beautiful Santorini, she’s also immediately assaulted by a visual frenzy of skin. Everywhere. People show it there. And it makes her uncomfortable because, remember: she’s Shy. In fact, she’s so physically embarrassed that as she’s strolling on a fishing dock, her eyes hungrily aching for the bounty of flesh around her, she trips and falls into the water and almost drowns. Luckily, a hottie watching nearby scoops her up and saves her life. I will now refer to him as Greek God.

Fig. 2 Greek GOOD GOD

Fig. 2 Greek GOOD GOD

I think when I first watched this movie I didn’t appreciate the full Greek God-ness of this guy, but in terms of hot men on screen he’s pretty damn A+. He’s a college guy who’s going to school at the University of Athens (whatever, it’s probably a cover for his godly duties) but in the summers he helps out on his family’s fishing boat. He lends her a shirt to wear. She looks adorably uncomfortable in it. When she gets home she soon discovers that the Greek God is from the dreaded RIVAL FAMILY and is forbidden to see him. Heyo! I smell a Romeo and Juliet plot cooking!

Oh, also, did I mention she’s an artist? She passes her time sketching random shit around the country, and the Greek God and her keep running into each other at places and she keeps trying to lose him ‘cause of the Rival Family business. But he doesn’t care! “Is it really them you are afraid of, or is it something else?” he asks her, deeply and earnestly. Looks like that question cut pretty deep because a few scenes later she’s crying as she’s looking out toward the open ocean, and in a highly symbolic moment strips off her clothes and jumps into the sea. Inhibition be damned! He’s there for some reason too suddenly and they go for a romantic swim. So looks like they’re in love based on that one time he lent her his t-shirt.

Meanwhile, Bridget, who is still reeling from her mother’s recent suicide but covering it up with a bunch of hair flipping, is on her way to her all-girls soccer camp in Mexico. Can we pause for a second to talk about this? Like is this a thing that white people actually regularly do? Because this is complete news to me. Anyways, Bridget’s pretty bummed about the camp being girls only…. Except for that Hot Coach, that is. Uh oh! As if feeling the audience’s obvious reaction, some girl next to her declares, “Don’t even think about it. It’s against the rules to have flings with the coaches.” Blake Lively looks at her like: I smell a challenge, bitch.

Bridget is really good at soccer and at running. That’s what I can gather from her screen time. Something that did not make me uncomfortable ten years ago that made me uncomfortable today during this re-view was just how much attention the camera pays to her body and overtly sexualizes her. I mean her wardrobe consists of literally sports bras and booty shorts and that the magical jeans are probably the longest pair of pants she actually owns and there she is, always, running somewhere. Hair flowing. Thrust up like some perfect specimen of humanity that we might model ourselves by—it’s weird and it’s creepy, especially considering she’s supposed to be what, seventeen? CAN THE CAMERA GET OFF HER DICK PLEASE?

Her and the Hot Coach have some embarrassing conversation about running and chasing the high (sorry runners) and ugh it’s just embarrassing. But I have to hand it to Bridget, she is not shy about expressing her desire to bone this dude, and having recently undergone low-level rejection myself, Bridget’s brazenness serves as a good reminder to GET. WHAT’S. OURS. You know what I’m saying? DAMN she literally just poured water on herself in front of him.

Fig. 3 Boners

Fig. 3 Boners

Back at home, Tibby is stuck working her shitty job at Wallman’s (get it?) while she works on a documentary she calls an ode to the “the lameness of human existence.” While on the clock one day she comes across a little girl who is passed out in an aisle. She calls an ambulance and the girl’s taken away, but not before saying something mildly snarky to her. Sometime later her documentary is still going pretty shitty because nobody taught her how to be a good producer and the girl shows up on her doorstep with the package of magical jeans in hand, wrongly delivered to her address. From then on she becomes the official Sidekick, or, plot point the movie can’t get rid of because Tibby needs to Grow Up. Sidekick does run the audio for Tibby, though, and seems to be a lot better at interviewing people because she can muster up an ounce or two of enthusiasm and charisma, two qualities Tibby still doesn’t have in her repertoire.

And so we get to Carmen. Carmen, my lady. My number one. Numero uno. As a mixed race Latina myself, I think part of the charm of this movie ten years ago was finding a mixed race leading lady in Carmen. But what felt somewhat relatable to me then feels forced and clumsy and embarrassing now.

Carmen is pumped to spend a summer with her clearly white dad for the first time ever—especially because he hasn’t been around much. She tells him how she’s going to make him “arroz con pollo” and “platanos, too.” When she rolls her Rs to affirm her Latin identity a fissure in the earth opens up and the demon god of Jean’s Pet Peeves awakens to devour the earth.

Then, on the car ride home, her dad tells her he has a surprise for her. Turns out the surprise is a whole new fucking family—also, he’s getting married—also, she’s in the wedding. Someone seriously needs to teach this guy about surprises. Her new family resembles a mixture of the Cleavers and Children of the Corn. Understandably, she fucking hates this.

Eventually things heat up for all the girls. At this point, Lena is deep in her love montage/travel promo with Greek God. They sail. They motorbike. They do not go to a single museum. She draws him like one of her French girls. I will say around this time one of the truly cutest moments in the film happens when Lena catches Papou kissing Yia Yia’s shoulder as she’s laying octopus out to dry. A lifetime of marriage and he still kisses her goddamn shoulder at random. Let me compose myself.

Fig 4. None of you assholes will know love like this

Fig 5. None of you assholes will know love like this

Later, even when their families try to tear Lena and the Greek God apart, she finds the strength to stand up for herself and finally tell a human male she loves him. It’s a Big Deal. Bridget eventually wears down Hot Coach and they have sex on the beach. Let me reiterate: she loses her virginity. IN THE SAND. ON A BEACH. Ugh. Afterward, Bridget spends a lot of time moodily staring into the distance which seems to indicate she feels pretty shitty about giving it up to Hot Coach. And possibly from the sand forever lodged in the folds of her labia.

Sidekick is eventually revealed to have leukemia, and Tibby, who sucks at accessing her feelings, deals with this by pretending it isn’t happening and refusing to visit her at the hospital. Fed up with her dad’s total shit job at incorporating her into the new family, Carmen and the Cleavers come to verbal blows and she takes the first bus out of there and goes home.

It’s when the girls join together again that the film seems to try to be something more. “Sisterhood” in its many forms becomes the central feature of this latter half of the film, and we are witness to the many ways they do, in fact, bloom from the friendship they share: it’s Tibby that encourages Carmen to voice her feelings of abandonment to her father, Lena who rounds up Carmen and Tibby to comfort Bridget as she comes to the realization that she’s pretty fucking sad about her mom and dealing with it by banging random dude-bros, and Carmen who pushes Tibby to get in touch with her feelings long enough to have one last and true connection with the dying Sidekick. Despite their differences, they are One.

Full disclosure: I totally ugly-cried during all the parts I ugly-cried ten years ago. I don’t know if this means I’m emotionally stunted or if I emotionally developed early. But I think my heart broke a little watching what feels like a very real exchange between Carmen and her father on the phone in which she finally tells him that he’s been a shitty father and that he can’t say sorry and fix it, and that fuck you dad for trading her in for something better.

It brings to mind this quote from director Luc Besson on his parents’ early divorce that’s stayed with me for some reason: “Here there is two families, and I am the only bad souvenir of something that doesn’t work—if I disappear, then everything is perfect. The rage to exist comes from here. I have to do something. Otherwise, I am going to die.”

I think Carmen really did need that phone call.

Everything wraps up neatly in the end, and even Hot Coach makes one final appearance to apologize for his part in taking Bridget’s v-card while still managing to keep that sexytimes door open by telling her to call him when she’s twenty (AKA legal but not TOO legal????). Which I now realize is CREEPY AS HELL GUYS. THIS WAS NOT A CUTE MOMENT.

So maybe their characters are a little one-dimensional, but the issues they individually endure are certainly not. And I for one can confirm that after breaking up exactly a million times since age sixteen and dating some truly heinous PSAs for loving yourself more in the process—at the end of the day, it’s the people willing to let you cry into a beer in public while telling you you’re awesome that really matter. At least, that’s what I think this movie is telling me.

Fig 4. EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!!

Fig 4. EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!!

Something new that I could only experience now, with ten years of perspective, is that this film—one filled with positive messages, for the most part—is the perfect ode to teenagedom. I mean, teenagers do weird things to show their affection for each other. They make friendship bracelets and pinky swear and I think now they take a shitton of selfies. I think that’s still true. Once, as a teenager, a boy gave me a mixed tape (just kidding, I’m a millennial, it was a CD) and included the song “Billie Jean” in it which I think was supposed to be a gesture toward my name (???) but inadvertently also gave me a pretty peculiar message about our possible future relationship—the point is: we do weird things to show each other our affection. And that clumsiness to connect is such a real part of this movie.

What I’m saying is sometimes being a grown-up fucking sucks, man. And this film encapsulates exactly what is perfect about being a teenager: that everything is still wonderful and full of promise, bursting and yet to be captured, and that the imaginary place where we envision our best selves still exists in the Great Future, somewhere in the looming haze of adulthood.

Let us all remember that time. Let us all treat every pair of jeans as magical. The Great Future is still out there, y’all.

Verdict: I’m on a lot of NyQuil right now.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
sisterhood7THIS BITCH IS HAVING THE BEST LIFE OF ALL TIME!! MARRIED TO A HANDSOME, BEING A SWAN. JUST REPRODUCED.

sisterhood8I haven’t seen enough Mad Men to know what actually happened here but I guess Alexis Bledel boned this guy and now they’re real-life married? Discuss.

sisterhood9Continuing to do it for all the Latinas here in the U.S., America Ferrera went on to star in the English version of my favorite Spanish soap opera, Ugly Betty (Yo Soy Betty, La Fea). Not as good as the original. But A+ for effort. I’m not even going to address how morally terrible this image is right now.

sisterhood10Amber/Tibby writes poetry now like, for real real, not just James Franco-real.

And the best part? They’re all still friends.

sisterhood11

Ten Years Ago: Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith

27 May

Resident musicologist Max DeCurtins throws some intergalactic shade at Revenge of the Sith, with a special side-eye reserved for the upcoming J.J. Abrams property.

sw1

Few things speak to my childhood—or to my adulthood—as directly as Star Wars. Ironically, I don’t even remember when or where Star Wars entered my life; I know only that I was very young. In fact, I hardly watch the movies of the Original Trilogy anymore for their own sake; I often throw them on in the background as I write code, send e-mails, browse the Web, and do other things. They have become what my best friend calls “sewing movies”: movies that you know and love so dearly that you put them on to keep you company while sewing ballroom dresses, theatre costumes, or everyday wear—often into the wee hours of the morning because that’s when the world finally stops bothering you for a while. Like all good sewing movies, they still seem—amazingly, even miraculously—fresh even after many years and countless viewings.

Star Wars doesn’t make me nostalgic for my childhood, but as a child it provided me with a world far more interesting than the one in which I would go to elementary school or middle school and very much not be part of the social circles to which everyone else ostensibly belonged. In fact, I believe that my eighth-grade yearbook, making the “Where will they go?” predictions whose true authors no one ever knows, portends that I will feature in my very ownStar Wars movie. Thanks, mystery yearbook authors. I’m sure the folks at Lucasfilm (no, sorry, Disney) are hunting down my contact information as we speak.

By now it should be clear that I am an unapologetic devotee of the Original Trilogy—and onlythe Original Trilogy. I sometimes think it’s a hard position to defend in our era of calling out ideological attitudes. Like “authentic,” though perhaps less tainted, the word “original” presents its own problems of interpretation. In my usage, we are talking about what took us from a world without Star Wars to a world with Star Wars; for me, therefore, the “Original Trilogy” refers to the theatrical versions of Episodes IV, V, and VI—THX re-mastered or not—that do not contain any of George Lucas’ edits of the late 1990s. They are the material that won over legions of fans before anything else appeared in the Star Wars universe. Yes, I have seen the Prequels. Yes, long ago I read quite a number of the mass-market paperbacks. They have something vaguely Star Wars-ish about them. (They have also probably quadrupled or quintupled in number since I was a kid and would wait in agony for them to be returned to the library so I could check them out and read them.) But in the end, they’re not sewing movies.

I first saw Revenge of the Sith with some Hillel groupies at the Camino Real Marketplace Cinema on Storke Road. It’s vaguely possible that a few of our cohort came along not because Star Wars meant anything to them, but because we may have promised them McConnell’s ice cream after the movie. Because priorities. After all, it was about to be summer in Santa Barbara, and May is just about the most gorgeous month of the year there. I know that I went into that theater not quite knowing what to expect; at the time, nobody had reason to believe that any more Star Wars movies would ever get made, and rumor had it that Sith supposedly packed more punch than its predecessors. This was the Prequel Trilogy’s last chance at redemption. Still, I had seen Episodes I and II, and with a physicist for a father, I knew that there was a certain momentum that would take much force—no pun intended—to overcome. When I walked out of that theater, I definitely walked out feeling just about as conflicted as I’ve ever felt after seeing any movie before or since. Ten years later, this is still basically the case.

I have seen people try to pretend that Episodes II and III fare a little better than Episode I.

No.

They are all terrible. Episode III is exactly as bad as Episodes I and II. If you didn’t know any better, and had learned about Star Wars by watching the Prequel Trilogy first, you’d think that Episode IV was titled “A New Hope” because, after Episode III, you’d be pretty devoid of hope that the series would get any better.

sw2

Revenge of the Sith starts with a battle in the space above Coruscant. For a moment, the music vanishes and all we get is an epic shot of a battle accompanied by the stark sound of unpitched drums. For a moment, it’s genuinely unnerving, but then, alas, the movie begins in earnest. Anakin and Obi-Wan, piloting the fighters that clearly will become Imperial TIE fighters by the time of the Original Trilogy, struggle to reach the flagship of General Grievous (clever name, George!), who holds Chancellor Palpatine prisoner aboard.

First things first: Palpatine has orchestrated his own capture by the Separatists. We’ve known all along throughout the Prequel Trilogy that Palpatine will eventually become the Emperor, and no fucking self-respecting Dark Lord of the Sith just rolls over when an armed insurrection comes to fuck with him. He’s placid as a stoner when Anakin and Obi-Wan show up to rescue him, and let’s not miss the fact that he’s CUFFED TO A FUCKING THRONE.

Anakin and Obi-Wan return to Coruscant with Palpatine, whereupon Anakin immediately goes all angst-ridden on Padmé, who’s just revealed that she’s pregnant with his Jedi-babies; yet what captures our attention? The buns. SHE’S WEARING THE FUCKING PRINCESS LEIA BUNS. Let me tell you, Oedipal relationships do not improve with the addition of Princess Leia buns. That’s a fact, kids.

After dreaming that Padmé dies in childbirth, Anakin seeks out a little therapy—from Yoda. The exchange is pedestrian, peppered with tired invocations of “death is a part of life” and “let go.” It’s a good thing there’s no Star Wars equivalent of Blue Cross Blue Shield; if I got that shit in a session, I’d ask for my fucking money back and have to fight the insurance company for the check. In the Original Trilogy, Yoda never functioned as a therapist…or a lot of other things, for that matter. Yoda has, for a lot of people, I suspect, but also for me, always hewed a little closer to Mr. Miyagi than to Sigmund Freud. He trained Luke; he taught Obi-Wan. And he spent basically all of his time in Empire Strikes Back telling Luke to quit being a fucking whiner baby. He didn’t analyze anybody or fight fancy lightsaber duels. If we have to see Yoda as psychotherapist, I guess the next logical question to ask would be: is Yoda an in-network specialist?

Boys and girls, it’s time to talk about hypercorrection.

Many of the authors contributing to this distinguished blog hail, as I do, from an academic background, and we all know that person—in a seminar or at a conference—who tries to make whatever they say sound more sophisticated than it is, who submits to the urge to lace their contribution with academic terminology they don’t fully understand, who attempts to emulate the tenured faculty in the room…and ends up tripping over themselves. Linguists call this phenomenon “hypercorrection”—taking a phonological or grammatical rule or quirk too far, and ending up with an ungrammatical form. Sociologists have identified a similar phenomenon in social behavior (for example, imitating the visible habits of the social class above one’s own, but missing the nuances that come only with membership in that class).

R2-D2, C-3PO, Yoda, and Palpatine all exhibit a high degree of hypercorrection in the Prequel Trilogy, whether in their lines (C-3PO, Palpatine, and Yoda) or their behavior (R2-D2). They are, as it were, more themselves than they have ever been before, and thus less like the characters we knew from the Original Trilogy. In some way this owes to the fact that these characters have larger roles to play in the Prequel Trilogy than in the Original Trilogy; they have more dialogue, and have to appear in more diverse situations. For example, Yoda and the Emperor really only had to function in one context, and this undoubtedly covered flaws that would have become apparent had their characters had to do more. And that’s okay. In the Prequel Trilogy…not so much. But back to the movie.

sw3

Soon Palpatine appoints Anakin to be his personal representative on the Jedi Council. Just as Anakin starts to throw a hissy about not getting promoted to Jedi Master, Mace Windu tells him to take a seat, showing us yet another scene that Lucas clearly intended us to read as full of tension, but which actually just comes off like a bad rendition of a parent chastising a teenager who doesn’t really have the conviction of his rebellion. They decide to send Yoda to go help the Wookiees, who actually haven’t been mentioned yet in the entire Prequel Trilogy but are totally way fucking important. After the meeting, Obi-Wan tells Anakin that the Jedi Council wants him to spy on Palpatine. Because premonitions.

Later that evening, Anakin and Palpatine take in some Star Wars version of Cirque du Soleil, and Palpatine basically takes the entire scene we just witnessed and spins it in the opposite direction: the Jedi, he says, want to take over the Senate. They’re also building secret tunnels under abandoned Walmart stores and plan to take away your guns and your right to discriminate against immigrants and homosexuals.

Palpatine tells Anakin the tale of “the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise,” an old Sith legend about betrayal and the quest for immortality. Because almost nothing is not painfully obvious in this movie, we know that Palpatine’s really telling the story of how he murdered his own master, and in the process he kind of drops the subtle bombshell that he might be responsible for Anakin’s “virgin” birth. HOLY SHIT WHAT THE FUCK LIKE FOR REALS.

Lucas, first you spring some fakakta prophecy on us, then you basically reveal that it’s all a lie, that Anakin’s mom, a slave, got Force-raped by a Sith lord? Shit just got way too real forStar Wars. This is too far a cry from “hokey religions and ancient weapons.” Not cool.

With that mind-fuck reverberating in our skulls, we take a brief detour to Kashyyyk to watch Yoda oversee the beginning of the battle between the Wookiees and the droids of the Separatist Army. Why? I don’t really know. This sequence accomplishes nothing except to show a battle, with Wookiees, one of whom helpfully lets out a Tarzan call. I guess if you’ve got an Oedipal relationship and Force-rape already in play, adding a tasteless reference to Tarzan won’t get you that much closer to the bottom of the barrel than you currently are.

sw4

Meanwhile, Obi-Wan goes off to Uttapau to dispense with General Grievous, and Anakin returns to Padmé to brood and complain about the Jedi Council, whining rhetorically about how he’s become a corrupted Jedi. While Star Wars is famous for its fuzzy sense of the passage of time, I can remember a genuine sense of confusion at this scene, because Padmé appears as if she’s about five months pregnant, which seems like a long time to have passed since the beginning of the movie. Or maybe it just feels like a long time, since by this point it’s already perfectly clear that Episode III stinks worse than the garbage compactor on the Death Star in A New Hope.

By now it should be painfully obvious why Revenge of the Sith is such a terrible movie, and it’s a fatal problem that plagues almost every scene: We know what’s going to happen. There’s no tension, and very little surprise. Episode III sucks because we’re omniscient viewers and many of the good guys also seem to know what’s coming, yet still lack the power to stop it. And to make matters worse, they comment on the fact that they know that things are for shit. Take, for example, Mace Windu’s incredibly profound declaration: “I sense a plot to destroy the Jedi.”

HOLY SHIT REALLY?

Well, man, maybe you should do something about that. We know. You know. We know you know. Watching you tell us all that you know you’re gonna die has a certain way of killing my vibe and making the rest of the movie, you know, kind of FUCKING IRRELEVANT.

Back on Uttapau, Obi-Wan engages General Grievous, who has got to rank among the lamest of bad guys. (“Army or not, you must realize you are…DOOMED.” Er. Well said, General.) Grievous flees after Obi-Wan comes close to defeating him, and Kenobi gives chase in a sequence designed entirely for the sport of the CGI effects team. As this gets underway, Anakin goes to see Palpatine to deliver the news that Kenobi has attacked General Grievous, remarking that he should have gone with Obi-Wan. This despite the fact that he openly dislikes Obi-Wan by this point. Palpatine responds to this news by revealing his Sith identity to Anakin, who at this very moment seems perfectly poised to take down Palpatine himself, having drawn his lightsaber and all. But instead of wailing on Palpatine’s ass, Anakin blithely lets the bad guy stick around. I feel like I’m watching Isildur refusing to destroy the One Ring, only I’m less convinced.

Anakin reports this “terrible truth” to the Jedi Council, who take off to arrest Palpatine, leaving Anakin alone in the council chamber to have a nervous breakdown over Padmé, who we see bumming around her senatorial pad, which is a lot of what she actually does in this movie. It strikes me that Padmé represents possibly one of the most disempowered characters in the entire Prequel Trilogy, and Episode III in particular reduces her to a Victorian manor-wife. The difference between Padmé and Princess Leia, who at least knew how to throw some shade and didn’t hesitate to take charge and take risks (remember, she poses as a bounty hunter inReturn of the Jedi in an attempt to snatch Han from Jabba’s palace), really sticks like a thorn in the side of the whole Prequel Trilogy, and it brings the scriptwriters in for more criticism on top of the criticism they already deserve.

Anyway, it doesn’t take long for Anakin to rush off to defend Palpatine against Mace Windu, and finally, having abetted the murder of the leader of the Jedi Council, he gets christened by the now-disfigured Sith lord as Darth Vader. As he gives instructions to the newly minted Darth Vader, Palpatine’s voice oscillates between sounding like the calmly arrogant Emperor we know from Return of the Jedi and sounding more like a phlegmatic, congested English villain dying of consumption.

sw5Now shit really hits the fan. The Jedi genocide gets underway, and Anakin/Darth Vader gets even more unhinged, like someone looking for his next hit of a drug. In many ways, he’s become addicted to the dark side, and shows characteristics of mental instability, and if George Lucas had really wanted to dig any deeper into the complexities of social taboos like addiction and mental illness, he certainly missed a big fucking opportunity.

At this point, Revenge of the Sith becomes little more than back-to-back barrages of upsetting sequences: Jedi children slaughtered, Jedi Knights betrayed, Separatist leaders executed. I honestly don’t know why any of this is necessary. It’s gratuitous in every way, and, because Episode III tells you everything that’s going to happen before it happens, it’s redundant—yet no less graphic for its redundancy. It doesn’t illustrate anything we didn’t already know; moreover, it feels like filler material designed to build audience anticipation ahead of the Anakin/Obi-Wan duel that we know must eventually come. And perhaps most upsetting of all, these minutes of unending death and destruction all across the galaxy make Episode III into a Holocaust movie, and that’s something it never, ever needed to be.

♫ SPRINGTIME FOR VADER, AND PALPATINE… ♫

The movie does the Original Trilogy a disservice because it provides an explicit political mapping for the backstory. It’s the rise of the Third Reich, people, with some alterations. The Jedi are the Jews, the Roma, the gays; they’re different from everyone else, they’re sneaky, and they control everything, or seek to. At the same time they’re limited and weak, and by extension, they weaken the society of the Republic. This is a heavy burden to put on an operatic saga like Star Wars. In the Original Trilogy, mostly all we know is that there’s an Empire, and it’s evil because they go around extorting people and blowing shit up. We know that the Rebel Alliance fights to restore freedom to the galaxy. Exactly how this state of affairs arises never quite matters.

Even as it traffics in historical political allegory, Episode III flirts with the specter of modern politics as well. Palpatine tells Anakin earlier in the movie that he needs to “embrace a larger view of the Force, not just the dogmatic view of the Jedi,” echoing classic conservative rhetoric that aims to get listeners to accept a false equivalence between two arguments, as well as to suggest that any hint of impropriety on the part of the conservative speaker is surely the smear work of the liberal media. This is a decidedly contemporary political euphemism, and if there’s one thing I definitely don’t need, it’s to associate Star Wars with any particular political-historical era (it does, however, make for some excellent mashup comedy-analysis).

But back to the movie. Having refused to give up Anakin’s location to Obi-Wan, Padmé scurries off to Mustafar to warn Anakin that Obi-Wan will come after him. Obi-Wan, having anticipated—just like every damn person watching Revenge of the Sith—that she would do this, stows away on her ship. Padmé pleads with Anakin to leave it all behind, because that’s not cliché at all. Nope. She also tearfully informs him that he’s breaking her heart, in pretty much exactly those words. Because that’s not cliché either. Definitely not. And then Anakin sees Obi-Wan at the head of the ramp into the ship, and more shit that absolutely isn’t cliché, no way no how, ensues.

Then come the lightsaber duels, between Anakin and Obi-Wan, and Yoda and the Emperor, presented in parallel. These go beyond epic; they’re downright absurd. Meanwhile, the score goes all Carmina Burana and shit. Yoda fails to destroy the Emperor and declares his intention to go into exile (as opposed to…?). Obi-Wan defeats Anakin, cutting him off at the legs, and after Obi-Wan weeps over Anakin’s betrayal, what follows must claim the honor of Most Graphic Scene in the entire Star Wars saga. We, along with Obi-Wan, watch Anakin catch fire and get roasted alive. The camera is unflinching; it even seems to enjoy the moment. For all the shallowness of the rest of the Prequel Trilogy, this bit is actually fairly disturbing. It’s morbid. It’s voyeuristic. It’s satisfying, because Anakin’s been such a colossal whiny jackass, yet it’s also not, because in Star Wars, you don’t kill your mortal enemies; you merely wound them and then make a speech. It’s a little like watching a crucifixion. It’s been ten years since I first saw it, and I still don’t understand what’s going on here. Kenobi departs from Mustafar with Padmé as the Emperor arrives to save what’s left of Anakin, and at last we arrive at the epilogue of Revenge of the Sith.

sw6

There’s a picture that anyone who’s ever visited Greenwich, England takes. A line of brass inlaid into the concrete marks 0° of longitude; the meridian between the eastern and western hemispheres. One foot on the right-hand side; one foot on the left-hand side. This, my friends, this is Episode III, and more specifically its epilogue.

Episode III stumbles and lurches, a schizophrenic movie that can’t make up its mind about what it wants to do; it spends most of its time desperately trying to connect the dots to Episode IV, but it also expends considerable resources reminding the audience that Episodes I and II exist. It introduces the blockade runner, the very first ship we see in Episode IV. Blockade runners are boxy and geometric and about as aesthetically appealing as an Edsel. In other words, it’s completely out of place in the design aesthetic of the Prequel Trilogy, which featured a lot of sleek ships done up in chrome. It’s visually jarring even as it’s a naked attempt to connect the Prequel Trilogy to the Original Trilogy. The movie makes similarly self-conscious efforts to connect various fighters to the TIE fighters and X-wings that they become by the time Episode IV happens. And Episode III wasn’t by any means the only movie of the Prequel Trilogy that tried to establish its ties to the Original Trilogy. Star Destroyers began to creep in at the end of Episode II; so too did we catch our first glimpse of the future Death Star.

Revenge of the Sith looks ahead even to Return of the Jedi; in the sequence showing the massacre of Jedi at the hands of the clone soldiers, one shot shows a chase on speeder bikes that mimics the shot in Return of the Jedi in which Luke, on a speeder bike, falls back behind two Imperial troopers to shoot them down.

And yet through all of this desperate looking ahead, it doesn’t bother to fact-check itself: when Obi-Wan and Yoda replay holographic security recordings to find out who attacked the Jedi Temple, the recordings include an exchange between Palpatine and his new acolyte that we know to have taken place inside the Chancellor’s quarters, not the Jedi Temple. Lucas, get your damn facts straight.

The epilogue of Episode III has to do a lot, and it feels over-engineered; it has to get us from the world of the Prequel Trilogy to the world of the Original Trilogy. In heavy-handed fashion, it shows in parallel the final emergence of Darth Vader and the birth of Luke and Leia. It tries self-consciously to make the Prequels into a unified trilogy, which the Original Trilogy never did in such obvious ways. For example, it takes us back to Naboo for Padmé’s funeral, during which we get a glimpse of characters not seen since Episode I and we hear the same choral music that we heard during Qui-Gon Jinn’s cremation on Naboo some twenty-ish years earlier. That same theme gets composited with the Imperial March as we watch Darth Vader and the Emperor survey the beginning of construction on the Death Star. We briefly visit Alderaan so that we can hear Princess Leia’s theme, and end up on Tatooine outside the Lars moisture farm, where Obi-Wan hands off the infant Luke to the couple we know as Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru in A New Hope. In the final moments of the movie, it’s as if we’ve completely left behind the Prequels and returned to a digital reconstruction of 1977. It was a weird note to end on ten years ago, and it’s still hopelessly weird ten years later.

sw7

I wonder occasionally what would have happened had George Lucas restricted himself to the same technologies available to him during the production of the Original Trilogy. I think it fair to say that movie technology, and innovation therein, has of late become a goal as sought after as a commercially successful, well-received movie itself. Of Peter Jackson’s recent adaptation of The Hobbit we heard a great deal about its “groundbreaking” native 48fps (frames per second) shooting rate, a departure from the 24fps that has dominated the cinema industry for nearly a century. Following in the wake of Avatar, whose technical novelty has garnered no small number of column inches, movie after movie has jumped on the 3D bandwagon, with the result that 3D technology has increased the quality of the cinematic experience relatively little but ticket prices rather more than that. Thankfully, the 3D craze seems to have faded away, but it appears that the next thing already looms on the horizon—movies made for VR headsets.

I don’t hesitate to say that a big part of what lends Star Wars its particularly wonderful flavor owes to the fact that it came at a time when special effects technology really started to improve (of course, Star Wars itself contributed plenty to said improvement). There were still illusions to be MacGyvered, and you can see progress in the visual effects play out across the three films. It also meant that special effects didn’t—couldn’t—dominate the making of the movies. There had to exist something compelling in the story, in the dialogue, in the acting, because you couldn’t simply give the audience two hours of special effects-laden action sequences; it would have been prohibitively expensive. The Original Trilogy is, like any human artifact, a product of its time, and I think that part of its magic owes to the fact of its appearance in its particular time. Parts of the Original Trilogy are pretty hokey, and that’s okay.

The point is that we have arrived at a state wherein we can use the medium to sculpt the message; the choice of filmmaking technologies can have artistic merit of its own, and we now have the freedom to make that choice. Perhaps this practice exists in indie cinema, and perhaps some enterprising young film students out there come across old equipment and decide to set themselves a challenge. Mainstream cinema, on the other hand, arguably does not allow this kind of thing. For example, I can think of only two recent mainstream films that dared not to shoot in color: The Artist and Joss Whedon’s much-hyped Much Ado About Nothing. (Sidebar to the movie buffs: are these two movies even really mainstream?) (Editor’s Note: No.) As filmmaking technologies evolve, I think it only proper that a director should have the option to make the movie such that it appears as if it had been made in 1985.

Among all the things, I pine for the analog lightsaber. Digitally rotoscoped lightsabers look flat and lifeless, and their physics seems off, though perhaps my mind’s eye deceives me on the physics. One thing’s certain: there’s a lot more twirling of lightsabers in the Prequels, like batons in a marching band. The dueling style in the Original Trilogy reflects much more accurately the realities of swordfighting—you hack at your opponent and parry as best you can when he hacks at you. Here again the over-engineering of the Prequel Trilogy seems to come to the fore; no observant person will fail to notice that the lightsaber duels are a lot fancier in the Prequel Trilogy than they are in the Original Trilogy, and you can place yourself in the design meetings at ILM and hear them speculate that, with the fall of the Jedi order, the art of lightsaber dueling would have fallen from its golden age.

sw8

Speaking of things that have fallen from their peak, I also pine for John Williams’ musical style of the mid-’70s through the mid-’90s. I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating. He never arrived at a convincing, memorable musical identity for the Prequel Trilogy, and what themes and cues he does reuse don’t come close to matching the style of the leitmotivs of the Original Trilogy; when he does introduce music from the Original Trilogy it sounds anachronistic.

Listen to the soundtrack of the original movies. I know we all think we know the themes, but the scoring for the Original Trilogy is nothing short of nonpareil. Leitmotivs are not just reused, they’re fragmented and transformed. When Williams does repeat music verbatim, he’s making a storytelling point. For example, the thematic material—down to the orchestration—is nearly identical between the scene showing Luke gazing into Tatooine’s twin sunset and Luke gazing into the cremation pyre of his father on Endor. It bookends the saga. It helps us contemplate Luke’s journey from naïve farm-boy to seasoned adult. That’s good goddamn storytelling. Yes, Return of the Jedi may be the most disjointed of the Original Trilogy, but the scoring for the two major death scenes—of Yoda, and of Darth Vader—is an absolute tour de force of Wagnerian operatic style. The moment after Darth Vader dies, we hear the Imperial March for the last time, but played on the harp, perhaps the most inappropriate instrument for that musical material. Yet it’s not inappropriate at all. The harp mimics bells tolling for the dead; it reflects the suddenly vanished power of the Empire. But it also helps to wrap up the storytelling in a way that the musical appearance of a version of Luke’s theme at the end of Revenge of the Sith doesn’t.

Despite the fact that I’ve spent the last five thousand words criticizing the Prequel Trilogy, I’m not here to say that George Lucas should never have tried to realize some of the Star Warsbackstory. What he did, though, was go too far. Peter Jackson, we could say, made the same mistake. He gave the world a magnificent set of movies in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his later trio of movies based on The Hobbit took the cinematic realization of Middle-Earth farther than it needed to go. The quality of the storytelling diminished rapidly, and each successive Hobbit movie met with more criticism than its predecessor. Simply put, both Lucas and Jackson made more movies than were really necessary.

The reality is, though, that we will probably continue to see new Star Wars movies until such time as Disney no longer feels that they’re profitable to make, and I can only wonder what the canon of Star Wars material will look like then. Canons have very much fallen out of favor. The typical contemporary discourse surrounding canons paints them as tools of exclusion, of privilege and power, and that by examining them through socioeconomic, racial, political, gender-oriented or sexual lenses, we can lay bare the ways in which canons work to uphold biases; we can expose their faults and therefore, by extension, argue for their overthrow. Canons tend, moreover, to define supporters in opposition to newness and change. Much of this is plenty accurate, and yet I still think it reasonable to exercise some restraint when it comes to the canon equivalent of iconoclasm. As I mentioned at the beginning of this re-view, I consider only the Original Trilogy to be canonical, and I have no compunctions whatsoever about defending this position, even if the amazing mind behind Machete Order doesn’t share in it.

I will reserve judgment of J.J. Abrams’ much-anticipated Episode VII until such time as I see the movie, although I must say—because, in the end, I can’t help myself—that I am already collectively embarrassed for Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher for appearing in it. Too harsh, you protest? Quit while you’re still ahead, I retort. At any rate, we’ll have to wait another seven months before we see what Abrams does in the sandbox that Star Wars has become. In the meantime, though, I’ll be busy standing on a sand dune, staring off into the sunset.

Free-Floating Thoughts

The effort to unify the Prequel Trilogy extends even to names, though here too George Lucas runs into inconsistencies. Consider the names given to the Sith lords of the Prequel Trilogy: Darth Sidious, Darth Plagueis, Darth Tyranus. All vaguely Latinate names. And then, Darth…Maul? Lucas has spent so much effort creating an identity for the Prequel Trilogy that when character names from the Original Trilogy come along—Darth Vader, namely—they seem out of place.

In Mace Windu’s duel with Palpatine, when he finally corners Palpatine on the ground, lightsaber aimed, who else wanted him to bust out with: “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance…”? C’mon, raise your hands.

Does anyone else wonder how the fuck the Force is out of balance if there are only ever two Sith in opposition to hundreds of Jedi? Just sayin’.

As bad as Episode III was, there was no Watto, and no Jar Jar Binks, and no referring to Anakin as “Annie.” Sometimes, it’s the little things.

Apparently Anakin Skywalker in Episode III has been referenced in clinical descriptions of borderline personality disorder. Because reasons.

During the writing of this re-view, I learned that the actor playing the original Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back—someone I had assumed for the last twenty years to be a man—is, in fact, a woman. HELL YEAH.

sw9

Ten Years Ago: Kingdom of Heaven

27 May

Stevi Costa crusades against Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven in this week’s 10YA.

Kingdom1

10 years ago, my husband, the esteemed editor of this here website, graduated from college. After his graduation ceremony, we decided to go to the movies, because that’s what we did all the time back then. So we drove over to some fancy movie theatre in L.A. and watched Ridley Scott’s swords and Saracens crusades epic, Kingdom of Heaven.

I remember being pretty entertained by this film back in 2005. Specifically, I distinctly remember the scene in which King Baldwin forces someone to kiss the ring on his leprosy-afflicted hand, calmly insisting, “I am Jerusalem, and you will give me the kiss of peace.” This is a great scene because you know the sack of shit dude he’s forcing to kiss his hand is essentially being executed, but slowly and painfully, which just seems like an extremely awesome form of justice. It’s also a great scene because after Baldwin receives the Kiss of Peace, he cold-cocks the dude hella hard, and it’s so awesome that you definitely want to slow clap King Baldwin.

So, in retrospect, I found one scene really entertaining, because I just rewatched this and I honestly can’t tell you what happens in this film.

I mean, there’s a plot. But it’s not very interesting. It goes something like this:

Qui-Gon Jinn and Remus Lupin try to convince Legolas to go to Jerusalem and work as a blacksmith since everyone he knows and loves is dead. At first, Legolas refuses because he has just barely buried his wife and child and is still in mourning. However, his colleagues at the smithy seem fond of mocking his pain, insisting that his deceased wife is burning in hell as a result of her suicide. This clearly pisses Legolas off, so he straight up lights a priest* on fire with a molten sword, then burns his entire business down and rides the fuck to Jerusalem.

Once he gets there, he somehow gets enlisted as a Knight to fight against the Muslim army for control of the city of Jerusalem. He does this because Qui-Gon Jinn asks him to, but mostly because Vesper Lynd is the Princess and she’ll totally fuck him if he takes the job. Her brother is the aforementioned Leper King of Jerusalem, who is secretly played by Edward Norton, and once he dies, she gets to be Queen of Jerusalem and make all kinds of decisions about who gets to run things. She maintains her relationship with her boorish French ex-pat husband and makes him King, naming Legolas the Knight in Chief of Jerusalem.

Then there are lots of battles, and the Christian Army eventually calls a kind of truce with Saladin, who allows them to leave the Holy Land safely in exchange for control of the City of Jerusalem. Vesper Lynd renounces her claim to the Queendom and cuts off all her hair, and she and Legolas lead their people out of the desert together.

I’m pretty sure the only reason I agreed to rewatch this is because I am narcissistic enough to enjoy watching Eva Green films simply because it’s like watching my own face for two hours. To her credit, she’s very good in the film, especially considering what little she has to do. Her entire job in this movie is basically to eyefuck the shit out of Orlando Bloom, and she’s so good at eyefucking people that she can do it while she’s drinking a glass of water. I also thought I remembered a pretty steamy sex scene between Green and Bloom, and was disappointed to realize that I’d only imagined it. It might actually exist in the director’s cut of the film, which apparently is a masterpiece in which drama and character development occur, but I’m so bored by the theatrical cut that I don’t think I’ll bother to watch the director’s cut for another ten years.

Kingdom2

The theatrical cut of the film seems to cut out all story in favor of extended battle sequences, which I just plain don’t get. It’s exciting to watch Legolas shank a dude who insults the memory of his dead wife, but the ensuing battle that happens on the road to Jerusalem left me wondering why it was happening at all. But then again, I felt the same way about the climactic crusade against Saladin, and that was ostensibly where the scrap of a plot was building toward all along.

I just don’t get battle sequences, you guys. I don’t find them interesting to watch. They’re always shot in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of characters and actions. On the one hand, I recognize that this situational confusion is intended to replicate the situational confusion of battle, but on the other hand it makes me as a viewer angry. Fantasy films and epics are particularly guilty of directing battle sequences in this confused way, and I dislike them with equal measure. The climactic battle in Kingdom of Heaven, in fact, looks an awful lot like the Battle of Helms Deep in LOTR: The Two Towers. I think the visual comparison I’m trying to make between the way battle sequences are filmed in historical epics and in fantasy films is intended to point out that the idea of the epic itself is a fantasy version of history, and therefore I don’t tend to think that there’s much weight to the deaths I’m seeing onscreen. Certainly, the film doesn’t allow us to think about the weight of these deaths as the point is to see bodies fall on all sides, and not to dwell on what the consequences are. I have a similar dislike of freeway chases in action films because I think about all the other cars on the road that get destroyed and the people driving them who are maimed/killed as a casualty of the action sequence. And it seems odd to me to begin a narrative with someone who cares a lot about the death of his wife and child, and end it with a giant battle sequence full of inconsequential bodies. I think only WWII movies, as a genre, spend time showing us the aftermath of battles, usually with a wide shot of the battlefield so that the viewer can take in the enormity of the amount of lives lost. I prefer that, not because it’s entertaining, but because it provides a particular sentiment to the viewer about why we should be watching what we just watched. Battles in fantasy films and epics do not do this for me, and I’m always left wondering why.

So ten years later, I definitely don’t enjoy Kingdom of Heaven. I barely find it fun, and I know I found it fun ten years ago. Eva Green is still the Queen of Eyefucking, and Edward Norton’s performance as King Baldwin is still one of the greatest things ever committed to film. But other than that, I guess I just don’t get epics.

 

Random Thoughts:

I also think maybe it’s not cool to make a movie in 2005 that vilifies Muslims, even if you’re doing it in such a way that’s trying to use history as a political allegory for the contemporary world. Like, I think maybe that’s just in poor taste all around.

Eva Green is definitely pulling off this Saracen Princess look in this film, which means I could totally pull off this look. But I won’t because that’s cultural appropriation!

Liam Neeson would either be the best GPS or the worst GPS, given his advice on how to find Jerusalem: “Go to where the men speak Italian, and then continue until they speak something else.”

*IMDb tells me that the priest is Legolas’ brother. This was totally unclear in the film.

Kingdom3

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 62 other followers