Thursday, May 31, 2012

No Church in the Wild, Les Miserables, and the aestheticization of unrest

Hey, two things came out today. First, Jay-Z and Kanye's music video, No Church in the Wild, directed by Romain Gavras (he's done some videos for MIA, in case you don't recognize the name). Here's that:

Second, there's the first trailer for Tom Hooper's film adaptation of Les Miserables, starring Russel Crowe, Hugh Jackman, and Anne Hathaway. So here's that:

Okay, take a deep breath.

Why mention these two in the same blog post? Because they both aestheticize the SHIT out of social hardship and unrest. Let's take a moment to think about that.

Gavras's video is like a slow-motion ballet of civil violence, juxtaposing the restless aggression of youth against the faceless defensive belligerence of institutions of authority. There array of images evokes a whole spread of emotions, like a shotgun blast of provocation. There are strains of noble solidarity, disaffected coolness, and pure nihilism; only the cops seem to have a consistent, legible characterization, which is: anonymous, inhuman, the true representatives of the empty, reactionary rule of law.

There's no explicit revolutionary message here, but in the sweeping, mythic presentation of these young rioters, it's hard not to read some glorification. There are probably a lot of people (the vast majority, perhaps) in the activist community that would find this a gross misrepresentation of their ethos. On the other hand, these scenes are becoming more common at protests, both on the international stage (the IMF protests in particular) and in certain isolated incidents of pure chaos (i.e. the 2011 England riots).

The Les Miserables trailer is based on a much more stable groundwork of source material, though it's a few generations removed from the actual unrest depicted in the narrative. Victor Hugo adapted by Schonberg, now adapted by Hooper -- from the outset, there's a seriousness of purpose here that it's hard to find in the Gavras video.

Still, this trailer is cutting us with the same blade as the rap video above. There's a striking abundance of images of suffering -- Cosette glancing back over her shoulder in terror, and later, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, crying desperately in close-up. For a trailer, it's surprisingly heavy, and you might be tempted to recoil from it, especially if you're in a public place.

When it comes to fictional depictions of violence, anguish, redemptive fantasies, etc, the fact that they're entirely invented provides a shield, allowing the viewer to be affected in a sort of suspended-disbelief isolation chamber. But for these two media artifacts, that chamber is porous, because however fictional and stylized they may be, these are clearly referencing both historical precedents and current events. Without going into a thesis-length analysis, I can only offer a shallow thought: this media packaging probably presents a double-edged sword to the viewer: one edge being awareness, the other being consumption and desensitization.

But as long as we're thinking of the grand narratives of human history, the social breakdowns, the frayed edges of civilization, we should take a moment to consider the continuing unrest and suppression in Syria, which is gradually intensifying, under our noses. Would that we could take this violent drama and tragedy -- which is all too real, and becoming more so every day -- and contain it within the harmless confines of a highly-stylized short film.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Abraham Licoln: Vampire Hunter is clearly a surrogate for Simon Belmont

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter sounded like a fun idea at first. After we heard it a few times, it almost immediately flipped into "already played out, despite the fact that it hasn’t been released yet." The fact is, at least from the discussion so far, it seems to use this fascinating historical backdrop as a hook, without really engaging it very much. So vampires were trying to use the Civil War as a cover for their own takeover of the American landscape? They wanted their own nation, and only the defenders of freedom like Abraham Lincoln could stand in their way?

After the cutesy cognitive dissonance wears off, it becomes clear that this is simply a rough, exploitative manhandling of history. Yes, he had a period of fierce youthful independence, including making his own solitary journey into the South – but as a young man, he was disciplined and pragmatic. As President, Abraham Lincoln was not a general… he wasn’t even particularly famous for being a soldier, or a rugged individualist, or any of the other romantic notions of a "hero" to justify this kind of appropriation as "clever." The guy was actually a diplomat, a force of balance and principled compromise (opposed both slavery and abolitionism), who built the foundation of a war on the bedrock of popular support, and who ultimately united the country, rather than allowing it to remain divided, or permanently alienating his Southern countrymen.

Bottom line: it doesn’t really jive, as a concept. I would have been more excited about Ulysses S. Grant: Vampire Hunter, or Henry David Thoreau: Vampire Hunter, or Jack Kerouac: Vampire Hunter.

But if you’re like me, you saw the trailer:

... and thought, "Shit, this still looks pretty cool. It uses the bullet-time slow-mo bullshit in a way that’s pretty off the hook, if you’re into that sort of thing, and setting aside the fact that it’s Abe Lincoln, they seem to have created a badass Central Hero to fulfill all our Lonely Gothic Crusader fantasies." So how do you really enjoy this movie, given the fact that it’s based on a totally confusing historical revisionist brain-fart?

Here’s my solution: I’m going to pretend this is actually a Castlevania movie.

With the whips, the Secret Society vibe, and the ridiculous Underworld-style photography transplanted into the 19th Century, this seems like the best approach. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter appears to owe more to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest than to Interview With The Vampire. Like the best of the Belmonts, Abraham Lincoln seems to be cursed with a warrior’s calling: is the chosen son, bane of the undead scourge, cursed with the double-edged sword of Privileged Insight and Principled Responsibility.

This is an act of mental remixing, like transplanting Radiohead as the musical accompaniment to a Jay-Z album. We’re going to replace one mythos with another, discarding the putative origin story for a new one, ganked from a more appropriate property. By rejecting its premise and substituting our own, we are going to make Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter the brilliant movie it deserves to be.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

An epic seriousness fail from Fred (of Portlandia fame)

Watch this video from Fred of Portlandia and see if you like the idea or not:

Comedy and seriousness can certainly coexist. This is part of why I love Nabakov, and part of why Rules of the Game is one of the great works of art (hi Evan!). There are crucial moments in each of those where the comedy and the drama reinforce each other endlessly, in a positive feedback loop, and create staggering emotional effects. But it's also worth noting that comedy and seriousness can be further broken down, and when you look at the different types, you find much more complicated dynamics between them.

For instance, seriousness can be broken down into POMP (i.e. the seriousness of politics, outrage, and theory), HIGH DRAMA (i.e. the seriousness of opera, epic poetry, etc), and REALISM (i.e. the seriousness of documentary, cynicism, etc). Likewise, comedy can be broken into any number of sub-forms... if Aristotle had really written a second volume of the Poetics devoted to comedy (as hypothesized in The Name of the Rose), it would have broken that shit down for us, and I'd have something to cite. As it is, I'll only bother commenting on one particular type of humor: SARCASM.

SARCASM, as a type of humor, doesn't seem to coexist with seriousness very well. Or, at least, it doesn't in this video... there such an intense ironic framework that it cannibalizes the seriousness, breaking down the concept right after the premise. Of course, this is further reinforced by the alleged "rules" of seriousness, which have a smarmy meta-serious tone to them.

I actually have a great love for seriousness. This should be obvious from this post itself, which is just as intolerant of levity as sarcasm is of seriousness. So it rather pains me that in the pop-cultural sphere, irony has become such a powerful force. It's a self-defense mechanism, a knee-jerk response, a permanent filter of perception, and a totalizing framework. Though there are some VERY SERIOUS ARTISTS (I'm well aware), and I understand how lots of people might find them pretentious and annoying, it seems like there's very little space left at the amateur level to experiment with real gravity and seriousness in art. It falls directly into the paper-shredder of judgment and gets laughed out of the cultural record. Just listen to random conversations at art museums, especially during tourism season, to see this in action.

Anyway, to beef up this post a little, I'll include a thing I wrote a while back, and never published, because it's painfully incomplete (it was originally written as a sort of meditation on why I dislike Entourage and Gossip Girl, despite their being fairly intelligent and well-acted).


I can relate to characters in fiction in two ways -- as caricatures (comedy), or as characters (drama). For the first type, I see their actions as absurdist, non-sequitors, as having no consequences except those of the scene, the immediate scenario, my immediate reaction, etc. For the second type, I form a moral understanding of their behavior. I evaluate their choices as either good or bad, and I anticipate a certain outcome. If they're well-intentioned, relatable, etc., I hope it works out well for them. If they're assholes, antagonistic, etc., I hope they get redeemed or punished in some way. I also try to understand their evolution, their "narrative arc," and when they change, I feel it's a serious change to the dynamic of the world they're a part of.

I'm happy laughing at the clowns, the caricatures. Laughing at them distances me from them. That kind of character is the kind you find in traditional cartoons (The Boss in Dilbert, all the characters in It's Always Sunny, Hagar the Horrible, etc). I feel no need to relate them to real world cause-and-effect or consequences. The second type of character is the type you encounter in anything dramatic, and in a certain way, I judge them... or, you might say, I evaluate their actions. I try to make sense of them and their world. If I don't like that kind of show, it's because I can't make sense of the world it takes place in. This often happens in shows where ill-intentioned characters are rewarded, or the virtue of selfishness or malice is implied. I just don't fit into those worlds, so I don't like those shows. Gossip Girl and Entourage are good examples.

Do I never like shows if I don't agree with the moral alignments of the protagonists? Not quite... the fact is, I just don't like these shows because their moral universe is so different from mine. Maybe the shows frustrate me because they don't validate my own values.

I don't like Entourage because it's all about a frat-boy universe. Even moreso than Friday Night Lights, which is more a family and social community universe. I don't like it because it's all about a flock of men, being the kind of man I was aggressively socialized not to be -- the shit-talking, alpha male, sexually aggressive, massively heteronormative male -- the kind of universe where I would get shit on, and would have to walk away out of shame and frustration. This is a world that I was socialized to reject, and apparently this instinct carries over, even to watching TV shows.

I don't like Gossip Girl because it's about a high school universe I was taught to resist and stay out of, a universe I was taught was unrewarding, even contemptible. The high school universe of cliques and social climbing and talking about people behind their backs and being part of a Machiavellian social battleground. The kind of place where high drama is the order of the day, where you see your immediate social relationships as the most important thing in the universe (I was always taught to try to enjoy myself, but look to the future, be focused on college and on making choices and being independent blah blah blah).

Is it true that aesthetic judgments are so often just our own projections and perceptions of ourselves, displaced onto the things we're critiquing? If so, is that okay?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Avengers compelled me to write this review immediately after seeing the film, which is totally not my style

I've read the backlash against The Avengers by the Serious Movie Advocates like A.O. Scott and Andrew O'Heir, and at my most disenchanted moments, I sympathize with them. However, it's a mark of the success of The Avengers that when I came out of the theater, I had turned into a fan of the purest, most obnoxious order... I wanted to go back to their reviews and post snarky responses about how they obviously didn't give it a chance, and they just didn't get it, and no matter how even-handed they sounded, I felt offended by the sneering subtext in their meta-criticism.

And as much as I find Samuel L. Jackson's snap at A.O. Scott to be childish, I understand where it came from. Just watching the movie made me want to stand up and cheer for it... I'd imagine that working on the film, acting the part of inspirational supervisor, can turn you into an unequivocal defender of its honor and integrity. Even the "splatter" graphic beside some Rotten Tomatoes reviews was enough to piss me off when I got home from the cinema. This is a testament to the very primal effectiveness of Whedon's film.

If I listed all the great things about the Avengers, I would certainly mark myself as a partisan. But I can't go and write a detached, ruminating reflection on its strengths and weaknesses, either, because I would severely understate its appeal. It's a film that feels great, even through all the spoilers, all the predictable twists, and all the formulas. So I'll take an entirely different angle in reviewing it: I'll list all the ways it COULD have gone wrong, and didn't.  All the pitfalls it managed to avoid.

NOTE - Minor Spoilers Below

1 - sidelining any particular character, either in terms of plot-significance, or in terms of screen time

With Captain America and Tony Stark as the two sides of guiding authority, and Hawkeye and Black Widow acting as sharpened but compromised tools of team cohesion, the other Avengers are free to take on rogue personalities and profound narrative significance. In fact, arguably, Banner and Thor are both the best-rendered characters and the most interesting individual stories within this omnibus. Reegardless, all six Avengers are absolutely given their due, which is a lot to ask in such a broad ensemble film.

As other critics have pointed out, the dialog is also written with remarkable agility, giving each character a unique voice that becomes clear immediately and remains refreshingly consistent. I won't harp on it. Joss Whedon knows how to handle characters.

2 - failing to create sufficient tension and chemistry between the protagonists

A number of critics point out how important it is that the Avengers have to face one another for a while before they get around to saving the world. It does indeed entertain the old comic book impulse of asking, "Who would win? Thor, Iron Man, or the Hulk?" But saying it that way makes it sound like a gimmick, a mere necessity, checked off a comic book fanservice checklist. It's not.

These moments showcase the primal appeal of comic books and give it a platform to become universal. In particular, when Thor's hammer strikes Captain America's shield, or when Iron Man starts showing signs of distress in Thor's grip... these moments are the small climaxes and reactions that keep the adolescent male imagination engaged.

For the record, the writers of The Avengers also manage to create a surprisingly subtle ecosystem of emotional relationships between the heroes. By the end of the second act, tensions within the group have risen to dangerous levels, but this tension is always ambient, an inexact collision of big egos and cross-purposes. If the writers had reduced it to simple binaries at any time -- authority versus renegade, confrontation versus surrender, interpersonal vendettas, etc -- it would have cheapened it. Instead, the characters' relationships retain their complexity and ambiguity throughout the film.

3 - failing to create a central, compelling antagonist

Loki was not thoroughly sketched out in The Avengers. A good deal of this work was left to Thor; The Avengers treated him as a fairly generic fascist supervillain. Nonetheless, Tom Hiddleston does justice to the role, giving Loki the burning, resentful self-importance that the character needs to set the end of the world in motion. His sheer malice gives a special endearing significance to all his confrontations and evil speeches, and it makes for a whole array of great moments.

4 - failing to raise the stakes enough for us to care

Throughout the course of the extended climax, there are a whole range of things for us to be vicariously protective of. The world as a whole... New York, which is a focal point for an alien invasion force, threatened by both the invaders and by its own supposed protectors... Tony Stark's life, which he offers as a chip in an intergalactic gamble... and Tony Stark's love for Pepper Potts, which is tapped as a corollary to his potential sacrifice. There is a great deal on the table by the end of The Avengers, and the film insists on our continued investment.

5 - not giving us enough huge, city-blasting special effects

Okay, so they obviously weren't going to make this mistake.

A good deal of the credit for The Avengers goes to the film for reasons that are hard to nail down. In particular, it balanced dialog and action in an elusive way -- somehow it functioned as a "screwball comedy" tucked within a constant stream of combat set-pieces, as if a personable, charismatic virus had infected a Michael Bay film. To fans of comic books, this creates a universe in cosmic harmony, because we're used to a medium where people manage to make long expository speeches in the middle of hectic combat. Its overstated dramatic moments (big speeches, flashes of sentimentality) also resonated with that comic book artificiality, which becomes a worthy aesthetic in its own right when it's applied with conviction.

The Avengers was so committed to its audience and so respectful of its constraints that it might feel disappointingly pedestrian if it's not taken in a certain spirit. However, pedestrian it is not. For a 2.5-hour film, it moves incredibly fast. For a massive high-flying actioner, it's amazingly human. And for an obvious ensemble franchise entry, it's strikingly intimate. Whedon was given a pile of bricks and mortar, and out of it, he fashioned a sculpture that respects the materials, and at the same time transcends them, and all our expectations.